The Amazing Dung Beetle

I have this fascination with dung beetles. Yes, you heard me right. Dung. Beetles. Large crawling insects that eat animal poo. I could watch them for hours.

What is it about these little creatures that I find so interesting? Let me try to explain.

Dung beetles are tenacious, acrobatic and incredibly strong. They work with such determination. They don’t let obstacles get in their way. I tell you, they are downright inspiring.

Dung beetles live on every continent but Antarctica. In the African bush, they are the clean-up crew, searching the ground for animal dung that they can use as food, or bury their eggs in. By gathering and removing animal dung, these amazing little creatures help to sustain a healthy environment.

Scientists group dung beetles based on the way they handle dung. Dwellers simply land on a pile of animal dung and lay their eggs. They are happy to stay on top of the dung pile until they raise their young. Tunnelers do just as their name suggests, landing on a dung pile and then tunneling into the ground below, carrying some of the dung into their tunnel as they go.

But the beetles that really fascinate me are the rollers.

Some species of dung beetles fly in search of the right quality of dung. When they find it, they land, gather the dung into a ball and then proceed to roll it away. Eventually they will settle on a place to bury the dung ball, where it will either be used a food for the adult beetle, or will serve as a place for the beetle to lay their eggs, providing food for the hatching offspring.  

In order to roll the dung ball, the beetle faces the ground, putting its back legs on the ball. It then proceeds to push the ball at remarkable speed, using its back legs, while simultaneously walking backwards on its front legs. Along the way it negotiates everything in its path, maneuvering over sticks, or around rocks. Nothing stops them.

Imagine doing a handstand with your feet on a giant ball, then walking backwards on your hands while pushing the ball along with your feet. Amazing!

Sometimes one dung beetle will steal the ball from another. That may be why they move at such speed and with such determination. 

We saw this little guy on our morning walk

With some species, the male attracts a female by offering her his dung ball. While you or I may prefer a bouquet of flowers, this is a hit with female dung beetles. It’s all about the size and quality of a male’s dung ball. If the female accepts his offering, she either rides on top of the ball as the male rolls it, or the two of them will roll it together.

Once the ball is buried in the ground, the female will lay her eggs in the dung ball, keeping her young safe. When they hatch, the dung will provide food for them, until they eventually find their way to the surface.

It is not just the large mammals that are fascinating in South Africa. Many of the tiny creatures offer interesting viewing. So, don’t just think of watching for predators hunting to feed their group. Look down at the ground to see what amazing creatures may be working hard to survive right at your feet.

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