Dung for breakfast – life of a dung beetle

To be honest, the idea of eating other animals’ excrements isn’t the most pleasing one. So the fact that there is an animal which does nothing but transforming faeces into small balls all day, and transports them from A to B to make sure that there is a rich food depot may sound a little odd. But people tend to oversee that the dung beetle – like all other species – has a right to exist since it covers a very important niche in our ecological system. Plus there’s probably no other animal in the world which has brought the recycling of dung to this kind of perfection like the dung beetle.

The wide-spread family of dung beetles (geotrupidae) counts more than 250 different species which are spread across the entire globe. About 59 species live in Europe. Dung beetles mainly live in woods, fields and meadows. They avoid a climate which is too arid or too humid, so they can be found in subtropical and temperate climate zones.

Dung beetles have a size of 10 to 15 mm. Most of them are black, dark brown or violet with a metallic shine. Their legs are finely serrated and therefore a perfect adaption to digging and turning around earth and dung.

In general, you can distinguish between three different types of dung beetles according to their recycling of faeces:

  • The rollers transform faeces into small balls and roll these balls into their hypogeal breeding burrows.
  • The tunnelers dig faeces directly on the spot without forming it into balls before.
  • The dwellers neither roll faeces nor do they dig it, they live in freshly laid dung.

Rollers and tunnelers are able to dig faeces of more than 250 times their own weight per day. All three types of dung beetles use faeces as their food source and hatchery for their offspring. Most of the time dung beetles lay their eggs in hypogeal breeding burrows which they have arranged before. Dung is transported into particular storerooms where it serves as a food source for the larvae. This kind of parental care for their larvae is an extremely rare behaviour in non-socially organised insects.

The ecological meaning of dung beetles for the nutrient circle is huge: on the one hand, they lower the risk of diseases for cattle herds by carrying away faeces; on the other hand they promote a kind of natural fertilisation by digging faeces into deeper surfaces of the earth.

Another very special trait of dung beetles is the way they orientate. Scientists were able to prove that dung beetles are the only non-human species which navigate by using the Milky Way and the stars. These beetles are able to memorise the spangled sky while they are spinning around their own axis on a ball of faeces. This discovery was honoured with the Ig-Nobel Prize (a satirist equivalent to the real Nobel Prize) which was given away for results in science that make people laugh in the first place but delivers food for thought in the second place.

As a part of our NATUCATE ranger courses in Southern Africa you can observe the behaviour of the amazing dung beetle in the wild.

Author: David Pyka - NATUCATE

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