Dirty Dancing for a Greener Planet


A dung beetle performing a dance on top of its dung ball. The little jig apparently helps the pea-brained beetles navigate.
CREDIT: Emily Baird; Baird E, Byrne MJ, Smolka J, Warrant EJ, Dacke M / PLoS ONE

Do you have a favorite animal? Chemist Sir Harold Kroto does. It is the dung beetle. Why?

Because it is:

an insect that has evolved to eat animal excrement. "If there were no dung beetles, we'd be 80 feet deep in elephant crap!"

The dung beetle plays an essential role in recycling organic matter for a "greener" sustainable environment. Dung beetles, it turns out, also do some dirty dancing that it is critical for navigating their environment. In a recent publication in PLoS ONE:

Upon locating a suitable dung pile, a ball-rolling dung beetle cuts off a piece of dung, shapes it into a ball and rolls it away to a distant location for burial and consumption. While rolling, the beetles move away from the dung pile in a straight line; a remarkable feat given that they do this facing backwards with their head pointing towards the ground. Rolling along a straight path is crucial for dung beetles because it guarantees that they will not return to the dung pile where they risk being attacked by other beetles who, rather than making their own ball, would prefer to capitalise on the work of others

Watch him in action:

The researchers conclude:

Unlike many other animal navigators, the task of the dung beetles is not to find their way back to a familiar location after a foraging trip. Instead, foraging dung beetles need to roll from a known location to an unknown destination in the most direct and efficient manner possible, which is in a straight line. Here, we propose that the characteristic dance that dung beetles perform before rolling away from the dung pile, and after encountering a disturbance while rolling, is an orientation mechanism that allows beetles to set an initial roll bearing, and to regain this original bearing if they experience an unintentional disturbance.

Nature is grand!

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