Dung Beetles Navigate by the Stars

As many of you know, the Curmudgeon’s favorite insect is the Dung beetle, a humble yet noble creature without which we would all be waist-deep in dung.

We have previously written about these wondrous insects — see Fossilized Dung Balls: A Dung-Based Ecosystem. And they have served us well as a metaphor in Intelligent Design: The Dung Beetle’s Tale.

Today, however, we have extra-ordinary news from PhysOrg: Dung beetles use stars for orientation. Here are some thrilling excerpts, with bold font added by us:

You might expect dung beetles to keep their “noses to the ground,” but they are actually incredibly attuned to the sky. A report published online on January 24 in Current Biology shows that even on the darkest of nights, African ball-rolling insects are guided by the soft glow of the Milky Way.

Guided by the Milky Way! Are dung beetles great or what? Here’s a link to that paper: Dung Beetles Use the Milky Way for Orientation. Back to the PhysOrg article:

While birds and humans are known to navigate by the stars, the discovery is the first convincing evidence for such abilities in insects, the researchers say. It is also the first known example of any animal getting around by the Milky Way as opposed to the stars.

Your Curmudgeon is in awe. Let’s read on:

[Marie Dacke of Lund University in Sweden] and her colleagues found that dung beetles do transport their dung balls along straight paths under a starlit sky but lose the ability under overcast conditions. In a planetarium, the beetles stayed on track equally well under a full starlit sky and one showing only the diffuse streak of the Milky Way.

That must have been an interesting experiment to set up. We continue:

Upon locating a suitable dung pile, the beetles shape a piece of dung into a ball and roll it away in a straight line.

Impressive! Here’s one last excerpt:

“Dung beetles are known to use celestial compass cues such as the sun, the moon, and the pattern of polarized light formed around these light sources to roll their balls of dung along straight paths,” Dacke said. “Celestial compass cues dominate straight-line orientation in dung beetles so strongly that, to our knowledge, this is the only animal with a visual compass system that ignores the extra orientation precision that landmarks can offer.

Star-ships of the future will undoubtedly be equipped with a population of dung beetles. They will be essential not only for sanitation, but also for celestial navigation. Verily, the dung beetle is the key to the future.

Copyright © 2013. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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9 responses to “Dung Beetles Navigate by the Stars

  1. Asstronomically Asstounding!

  2. Star-ships of the future will undoubtedly be equipped with a population of dung beetles. They will be essential not only for sanitation, but also for celestial navigation. Verily, the dung beetle is the key to the future.

    Alas, that idea has already been explored by Frank Herbert in his epic SciFi oeuvre. The Spice Guild Navigators plotted the course of the vast star liners.

    Of course, I’m referring to Dune which was the unfortunate name accorded the masterpiece due to a careless editor who misread what Herbert originally wrote which was – you know – Dung.

    Muad’Dib actually translates into “beetle.” True story.

  3. Doc Bill said:

    Muad’Dib actually translates into “beetle.” True story.

    And that story translates to “funny dung”.

  4. Ceteris Paribus

    At least we now know that true dung beetles in a planetarium are polite enough to shut off their cell phones. Unlike the human dung beetles who habitually start texting cosmic lightning storms as soon as people’s eyes finally get dark adapted.

  5. Like many organisms, they may also use magnetite for orientation/navigation. We have measured magnetite in hundreds of animals, including many insects, but not dung beetles, and they all have significant amounts of magnetite. Unfortunately, I have not gotten around to publishing the data. This is an interesting study on dung beetles.

  6. Vhutch,…..so there is magnetic plasma hurtling at earth at 1 million mph
    after a solar release yesterday. It will arrive in 2 days, disturbing earths magnetic field. and setting up a few days of astonishing aurora borealis displays. It would be cool if the dung beetles did the moonwalk or start. drinking ing martinis or something when the magnetic pulse reaches us.

  7. As many of you know, the Curmudgeon’s favorite insect is the Dung beetle, a humble yet noble creature without which we would all be waist-deep in dung.

    So, our nation’s problem is that we have no dung beetles:

    1. In the Republican National Committee offices;
    2. In House GOP leadership;
    3. In the Texas Lege;
    4. In the Wisconsin governor’s office;
    5. In the U.S. Department of Education, the Texas State School Board, and most big city school boards.

    Now things start to make sense.

  8. Pete Moulton

    Peace to SC, But I’d like to propose the dung beetle as the Tuters’ official mascot. After all, pushing dung is what they’re best at.

  9. Pete Moulton says: “I’d like to propose the dung beetle as the Tuters’ official mascot. After all, pushing dung is what they’re best at.”

    But the dung beetles — bless their little hearts — clean the stuff up. The Discoveroids spread it around where it’ll be stepped on.