An Impressive Glimpse into the Life of a Dung Beetle

by Sandy Salle on November 24, 2014

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Article by Britt Urbach, the Hills of Africa Travel marketing director

As we set out on our afternoon game drive in the Marakele National Park in South Africa, our African safari guide from Marataba Safari Lodge, Johna, stopped the vehicle only 10 minutes into the drive to point out a pile of elephant dung on the side of the dirt road. After quickly getting over the pungent aroma, I noticed that the pile of grass-filled excrement was pulsing. Within this giant pile of dung was a bustling workplace, filled with dozens of dung beetles.

The dung beetles, some of which were metallic green and others just black, were busy rolling balls of manure with their back legs. Every once in a while you would see a fight though where one beetle would try and sabotage the other beetle’s carefully crafted ball of dung. In fact, I found myself feeling bad for the dung beetle who didn’t stand a chance against the bully.

Johna pointed out that the dung beetle can create a perfect sphere of dung – and perfect spheres are very rare in nature. The male beetle will roll a ball – some can be as small as a marble while others can be as large as a human fist – and the female will attach herself to the ball as the male rolls it to their “home.” As the male rolls the ball, he will occasionally stop and look up at the sun, which navigates him to his home. If the sun is down he will use the Milky Way to guide himself to his home!

Now, I’m sure you just burst out laughing at the fact that the dung beetle navigates his ball using the Milky Way, but Johna assured us that scientists observed this natural phenomenon after careful observation. The scientists put little visors on the dung beetles and noticed that they could not orient themselves at night without the light of the Milky Way. Pretty fascinating stuff!

dung beetle

Anyways, back to the rolling of the dung . . . It’s quite hilarious to watch the female rolling around on the ball of dung as the male works hard with his back legs to push the ball along the dirt road.

Once the couple reaches their home, the female then lays her eggs in the dung and when the newborns hatch, they have plenty of nutrients to eat off of within the ball of excrement.

Johna also explained to us that dung beetles spend a great deal of time in the dirt and when they are en route to a pile of dung, the mites that live in the dirt clean the dung beetle’s mouth so that he can sense the dung and roll it. The mites are then able to lay their own eggs in the dung, using the dung beetle as their method of transportation. In fact, Australia once tried importing the dung beetles found in South Africa into the outback to clean up cattle excrement. They found that the dung beetle was not able to detect and roll the dung and later discovered that the mites that attach themselves to the dung beetle’s mouths in Africa were not found in the outback. Therefore, the dung beetle’s sensors were inhibited by dirt and they could not survive without the mites who cleaned their mouths. It’s pretty fascinating how the circle of life works . . .

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