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Debbie Hadley

Why the Dung Beetle Danced on His Ball of Poo

By January 23, 2012

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When I first read this scientific paper, I have to admit, I cracked up. Not because the research is without value, but because there's something funny about a bunch of scientists sitting in a South African field building obstacle courses for dung beetles to roll balls of poop. And their paper reads a bit like a Just So Story by Rudyard Kipling.

Dung beetles, you see, do an odd little dance on top of their balls of poo, and these scientists wondered why. So they set out to learn why the dung beetle dances.

Whenever a larger creature deposits a nice patty of poo in an African field, dung beetles will converge on the offering to claim their share. Dung beetles, being somewhat smart as beetles go, learned long ago that the easiest way to transport a piece of poo is to form it into a ball and roll it away. So around this fresh pile of dung, any number of dung beetles will frantically mold poo into spheres. And that's when the dancing starts.

Before a dung beetle pushes his poo ball away, he climbs on top and carefully turns this way and that. Sometimes he rotates to the right, and sometimes to the left. The scientists believe the dung beetle is establishing a compass for his getaway, noting his relationship to the sun or other celestial objects so he can maintain a straight course when he begins pushing his poo ball.

Why is it so important for the dung beetle to roll his dung ball in a straight line? Because if he's veers off a straight path, there's a risk he could inadvertently circle around and wind up back at the dung pile. Other, lazy dung beetles might just eye up his perfectly rolled poo ball and decide to steal it from him, rather than make their own. It's a simple matter of competition, really. The dung beetle who can roll his dung ball away the fastest wins, and that means rolling a ball along a straight path.

Unfortunately for our dung beetle hero, a straight path does not always mean a clear and level path. He's likely to encounter obstacles along the way. He may need to navigate around a clump of grass, or a rock. He may lose control of his dung ball as it accelerates down a hill. The dung beetles faces backwards as he pushes his dung ball with his hind legs from behind, making steering an even greater challenge.

So, the scientists decided to put a few dung beetles through their paces, and see how such obstacles and challenges elicited another dance performance. They designed courses that required the dung beetles to find their way around obstacles, that dropped in elevation, and that veered off in a curved path. And they watched a lot of dung beetle dances.

Their study showed that the dung beetles danced almost anytime something caused them to stray from the straight and narrow path they had selected for their dung ball. It seems to me that there's some kind of moral here, something big to be said about life (or dancing). I just can't quite figure out what it is. Where's Rudyard Kipling when you need him?

To read about the dung beetle dance study in detail, go to the source: The Dung Beetle Dance: an Orientation Behavior?, Baird E , Byrne MJ , Smolka J , Warrant EJ , Dacke M , 2012.

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January 23, 2012 at 1:30 pm
(1) Backyard Wisdom says:

Folks might say I spend way too much time with entomologists, but I find this rather fascinating. Love the Kipling analogy!

May 8, 2013 at 8:49 pm
(2) Sallie says:

I could picture the whole thing! Thanks for the laugh, again.

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