Dung beetles are often featured in “if you think your job is bad…” jokes, but they are in fact amazing creatures!
Found in deserts, savannahs, grasslands and forests on all continents except Antartica, dung beetles do not enjoy the extreme cold and dry conditions. While their diet consists of the dung of both omnivores and herbivores, they prefer the former for wider nutritional benefits. Some have been known to also eat fruit, decaying leaves and mushrooms, however, a diet consisting of dung only meets all the food and drink requirements of these hard-working creatures.
While most dung beetles detect dung using smell, smaller species cling to the host and await the delivery of their fresh supply of dung. Once collected, the dung is rolled without delay, as the dung trade is highly competitive and slack dung beetles can expect to have their cargo hi-jacked by industrious competitors.Dung beetles are the ultimate overcomers because they roll their cargo in straight lines, irrespective of what obstacles they may encounter en-route. This begs the question: how do they manage to stay on track?
Reproduction & Interaction
Much research has been done to answer this question, which is quite simply: by the light of the sun and moon. However, further research revealed that on clear, moonless nights the Scarabaeus Satyrus has the capacity to navigate by the light of the Milky Way at night!
Anyone who has ever observed the fascinating antics of these creatures will find it easy to believe that they can roll up to ten times their own weight in dung. But, not all dung beetles are alike. Aside from their physical differences across several species, they are categorised in three types – Rollers, Tunnelers, and Dwellers.
Single Rollers roll and bury a ball that will be used for either food storage or what is known as a ‘brooding ball’, in which an egg is laid. However, the dung balls made by Tunnelers and dwellers are accompanied by a male and female dung beetle. It is believed that the male usually pushes the ball, while the female catches a free ride or simply follows. When they find a suitably soft site to bury their ball, they mate underground and prepare the brooding ball. Then, the female lays her eggs in the ball. The parents sometimes stay and keep watch over their brooding ball, and during incubation, the larvae feed on the nutrients in the ball as they undergo metamorphosis.
Following extensive research, it has emerged that dung beetles don’t necessarily employ teamwork to roll their balls, as was previously thought. In fact, evidence suggests that where two are seen actively engaging with the ball, it is far more likely that one is executing a heist!
But the life’s work of the humble dung beetle is not simply for the survival of its own species. Far from it! These tiny, determined insects play such a vital role in the environment, that they have been introduced to new habitats around the world to aid in enhancing the hygiene of livestock. Their diligent removal of dung drastically reduces infestations of pests like flies, and subsequently, reduces diseases. They are also invaluable in the processes of nutrient recycling, improvement of soil structure, and the dispersal of seeds! Small wonder then, that they have been found very useful in the rehabilitation of coal mines in South Africa.
In many eastern countries, dung beetles are used in the preparation of traditional medicines, and in other places, they are even eaten.
So, while many of us may not elect to have dung beetles on the menu, we can applaud their workmanship and the valuable contributions they make to the environment. It would certainly seem that they have the last laugh when it comes to dung beetle jokes too, because their job is, in the grand scheme of things, vital.