Although they are here in Florida, the only dung beetle I’ve ever seen was rolling a ball of dung (presumably from my dog) across my patio. So, because I was told they are common there, one of the things I really wanted to see during our animal viewing safaris in South Africa, was dung beetles. I was not disappointed.
When our ranger asked our group what we wanted to see, he got the usual “lions, leopards, elephants” but I hesitated to say anything, before whispering to him, “dung beetles.” To his credit, he did not laugh and even let me get out of the truck when we came upon a fresh, wet, steamy pile of poo, crawling with busy beetles. I would have stayed there all day but my bemused traveling companions, reminded me that we had lions and giraffes and rhinos to watch. You can see them in action in a video at the end of this post.
World wide, there are over 8,000 species of dung beetles, ranging from a couple of centimeters to 5 mm in size. The most well known are the ones that roll up balls of fresh mammal dung and with heads down, use their back legs to push the balls back to a hole. They use the dung for food or lay an egg in it and the hatching larva uses it for food. One wonders how they know how to find their hole, since they are navigating backward with their heads down. There is an interesting article on the National Geographic site that explains scientific findings about how these beetles use light from the stars, sun and moon to navigate.
One of our South African friends, Stuart, showed me a magazine article about a recent scientific publication describing the large, hard nut produced by a tree, Ceratocarym argenteum, that looks and smells like antelope poo. Dung beetles are fooled into rolling them away, thus dispersing the seeds. Another of nature’s fascinating turns!