Beetles, Stars, and Spherical Scat

A dung beetle standing proudly atop his poop ball, courtesy of Andi Gentsch on Flickr

Before today, all you probably knew about dung beetles was that they roll balls of poop. You may not even have known why they roll balls of poop, let alone anything else about these little arthropods’ lives.

Well, that all changes right now, starting with the fact that dung beetles only take the time to mold those spheres of scat when they need to move it somewhere. Otherwise, they’ll dig a burrow underneath or inside the poop. That’s actually the equivalent of living in a real gingerbread house for these guys, because dung beetles eat dung.

Well, seeing as there aren’t any toilets in the wild, I guess someone’s got to clean up after everybody. I’m not sure that eating the poop is the best way to go about it, but uh, you do you, dung beetles. As long as there aren’t piles of poop building up everywhere, I’m fine with it. I guess. Ew.

Minus their nasty eating habits, dung beetles are actually great family arthropods. Some species even mate for life, a rarity in the phylum famous for beheading their husbands (looking at you, mantises). Most dung beetle moms, and sometimes both parents, take the time to dig nurseries for their young. When the nest is finished and stocked with poop, the mother beetle lays her eggs in little poop swaddles that the larvae will eat through when they hatch.

Dung beetles don’t just gobble down feces willy-nilly, either – they’re actually very picky about what poop they will eat. Different species only consume the poop of certain animals, and even then they only like the fresh stuff rather than hardened pellets. Pickiness comes at a price, however, as dung beetles have to rush in to grab whatever poop they can before other beetles carry it all away. Fights are not uncommon during the poop palooza, either: here’s a video of a couple beetles brawling over a ball of dung. A fresh pile of scat is basically the equivalent of dung beetle Black Friday.

Once the dung beetle has collected its dung and escaped from the crowd, that ball of poop actually serves a few more purposes than just food. For one, many dung beetles live in warm climates where the ground can get a bit too hot for their feet during the day. So, dung beetles will periodically climb up onto their dung ball to cool off. They’ll also stand on the poop at night to gaze at the stars.

No, really, I’m actually serious about that! Dung beetles are one of the only known animals that use the stars to navigate by. Unfortunately, dung beetles spend most of their poop-pushing time staring at the ground, as they have to roll the poop backwards with their hind legs. So, rather than pausing frequently to look up at the sky and thus greatly delaying their ETAs, dung beetles will climb up on the poop and take a mental “snapshot” of the sky. Then, they spin around to get a sense of their current location before hopping down to push their poop balls again, keeping that mental map in mind to make sure they stay on the right course.

…It just occurred to me that poop-eating beetles may be smarter than I am. Dung beetles are out there charting their course by the stars like fifteenth-century seafaring explorers, and I have to use Apple Maps to find the Walmart six minutes from campus.

Dung beetles are so much more than odd little bugs that play with poop. We should recognize them for their more unique and astounding qualities, not their gross but necessary niche! Therefore, I shall henceforth be referring to dung beetles as “star beetles.” There are plenty of bugs that dine on poop, but only a special few take the time to stargaze. While I’ll admit that rolling balls of poop is unique to dung beetles, I think we can agree that their celestial navigation abilities are a bit more impressive.

2 Comments on “Beetles, Stars, and Spherical Scat

  1. Always enjoy reading your posts…very informative—and entertaining! looking forward to your next entries……

    Liked by 1 person

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