Dung Beetles

Figure 1 Dung Beetles have been shown to be able to orientate themselves by using the Milky Way galaxy! No other creature has been shown to do this.

Dung Beetles are extraordinary. We would be overrun with dung muck from many animals were it not for these humble creatures who make it their function in life to roll muck and break it up!

The beetle that loves muck

Beetles actually make up about one third of all known insect species and Scarab beetles, commonly known as dung beetles have the Latin family name of Scarabaeinae and feed exclusively on feces (dung), and comprise about 5,000 species. Many dung beetles, known as ‘rollers’, roll dung into round balls, which are used as a food source for their young in brooding chambers. Others, known as ‘tunnelers’, bury the dung wherever they find it. A third group, the ‘dwellers’, neither roll nor burrow – they simply live in the manure! These beetles can grow to 3 cm long and 2 cm wide and play a remarkable role in agriculture. This is because by burying and consuming dung, they improve the recycling of nutrient in the soil and they also protect livestock, such as cattle, by removing the dung which, if left, can breed pests like flies. So these beetles are very important and function well in dealing with the mess that otherwise would be left by the larger animals. Dung beetles can eat more than their own weight in 24 hours.

Battles over dung

The Dung Beetle rolls the dung, always following a straight line despite all obstacles, back to its home where the larvae are hatching and feeding on the dung. For most Dung Beetles it is just the male who does the pushing, and the female sometimes hitches a ride on top of the dung! He uses his back legs to push the ball; occasionally male and female beetles do this together. Dung Beetles are so keen to get the dung that battles can emerge between them for ownership They even occasionally try to steal the dung ball from another beetle, so the  they have to move rapidly away from a dung pile once they have rolled their ball to prevent it from being stolen. They can roll up to 10 times their weight. Such is the determination to get at the feces balls, it has been known for Dung Beetles to roll two at once.

Navigation by the stars!

In order to orient itself, before rolling the dung ball, the beetles will often get on top of the ball and perform a ‘dance’ during which they locate light sources to use for orientation; they then work out which direction they need to roll. Remarkably, it has been confirmed that this humble beetle actually maps its direction by the stars of the Milky Way. Marcus Byrne of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa showed this by using a planetarium . It is also believed that a bright Moon can be used by the beetle as well. It is the only insect known to orientate itself by the galaxy!

Dung Beetle and the Bible

For many centuries across the Ancient Near East, the Dung Beetle was seen as a symbol of the gods rolling the sun across the heavens; out of the ball of dung (representing the earth) comes new life in the form of the beetle grubs and vegetation. It appears as large monuments, tiny amulets and figures on inscriptions and tombs; it was especially popular in Egypt. Significantly, however, it is not mentioned once in the Bible, yet some suggest Israel copied its religion from the surrounding nations.

Ask the beasts

We are reminded of Job 12:7,8, ‘But now ask the beasts, and they will teach you …. or speak to the earth, and it will teach you.’ The beetle may be a lowly creature, but the sophistication of the Dung Beetle is a lesson to our proud hearts. Even these creatures are fearfully and wonderfully made.

A version of this article has also appeared in one section of the book “Wonders of Creation – Design in a fallen world” co-authored with Professor Stuart Burgess and Brian Edwards and published by Day One, 2017.

(Please find it here: https://www.dayone.co.uk/collections/reduced/products/wonders-of-creation)

Professor Andy McIntosh

Leeds, October 2019