I’m going to have a go at talking to you about dung beetles, which doesn’t exactly sound like the most appealing subject. And I didn’t think so either, until I came across a couple of pretty cute research topics. Yes, I said cute.
Dung beetles, it turns out, can be cute, even when standing on top of a steaming pile of shit. And how can they be cute? Well, they become cute when researchers decide to give them little green boots and black Sci-Fi inspired helmets, all in the name of science. Watch out for these insects, their star is rising!
What’s with all the poo?
What motivates a person to get involved in the inner complexities of a dung beetle is beyond me. But I guess one can only be fascinated by the question of “why are you rolling up balls of poo then rolling around on them?”. So why indeed?
Are dung beetles just a bunch of sexual deviants that somehow get off on poo? Or is a ball of dung the insect equivalent of pimping your car with sub-woofers and hydraulic lifters? It turns out that those hypotheses are wrong. In reality, dung beetles are ‘rolling in the deep shit’ to keep cool.
Several species of dung beetles live in deserts, where the midday sun can heat the sand to temperatures of up to 60°C (ie really hot). For humans, this would be some serious ouchies and it’s no different for insects and animals. Dung beetles, it turns out, use their moist ball of dung (there’s a nice visual for you) as a refuge from the hot sand. The ball of dung can be several tens of degrees cooler than the sand, so by standing on top of it, they’re able to avoid getting fried.
The researchers discovered this by monitoring how many times dung beetles jump on top of their balls, given a certain ground temperature. Below 50C, the beetles would simply push their balls in a straight line for 1.5m without stopping. But above 50C, they would stop, jump on top of their dung and nonchalantly hang out for a bit. However, the researchers didn’t stop there; they wanted to know what triggered this ball climbing. Enter the tiny green beetle boots.
Researchers had little beetle boots made, customised from dental silicon. These boots, which insulate the feet from the hot sand, were placed on the dung beetle to ascertain whether it was leg temperature or thorax temperature that was the trigger. When the dung beetles wore their hipster-inspired leg wear, they were less likely to climb the ball of poop, even in hot temperatures. GENIUS!
Could you imagine being the scientist writing a grant application, asking for funding to investigate this: “We need some monies because we um, want to put little boots on some dung beetles to find out why they um, love their dung balls so much”. Needless to say, I guess the funding bodies envisaged just how cute dung beetles would look and were swayed by their adorable charms. It’s perhaps no surprise then that researchers, inspired by the sweet charms of a green-booted dung beetle, embarked on their own fashion quest, this time with head wear.
Come on, Vogue!
One of the striking aspects of dung beetles rolling their balls of dung is that they do so in a straight line. Once they acquire some poo and mould it into a suitable sphere, they spread away from the intense competition of the dung pile and move in a straight line in one direction.
That’s pretty impressive when you think about it. Imagine being stuck in a desert with no bearings, and you had to walk 50m in a north westerly direction. It’s pretty difficult. So scientists wondered how dung beetles managed to do so. It turns out, they are a bunch of star gazers.
Dung beetles, the nocturnal ones at least, use the stars to orient and guide themselves. The celestial bodies in the night sky act as visual clues, sort of like a compass that they can reference. Researchers discovered this in a Hunger Games inspired experiment (minus Jennifer Lawrence); death match and all. The researchers put several dung beetles in the centre of a purpose-built arena with giant all-encompassing walls and several strategically placed hidden cameras. This arena had no trees or other terrestrial clues, just the night sky above and a blood bath below.
As the dung beetles were raised into the arena, the researchers watched as they created their dung balls and marched away, avoiding the carnage of the shit pile. The researchers timed how long it would take for the beetles to reach the edge of the arena, depending on different night-time conditions. They timed them in a full-moon starry night, a moonless starry sky and of course, with tiny super-cute helmets on their head.
The helmets were made of cardboard and were designed to obstruct the dung beetles view of the night sky. Lo and behold, when the dung beetles wore their hats, the time taken to reach the edge of the arena increased. The beetles lost their way and were no longer moving in straight lines.
This research, which was only published this year, was pretty ground breaking as it was the first time an insect had been shown to move by starlight. While birds, humans and other animals share the same abilities, no insect had ever been known to do so either.
But seriously, why?
Of course, you might be asking yourself the question, what is with all this interest in dung beetles? Well, just like toilet cleaners make sure humans are living in hygienic and sanitary conditions, so too do dung beetles for nature. They clean up and bury feces, preventing proliferation of flies and other pests, all while improving soil conditions. So they’re legitimately important.
And research like this only serves to give these dung beetles the public attention they deserve. Long have they been martyred for their lifestyle choices, but the PR boost from the fashion savvy researchers has bolstered, at least for this author, the prominence and importance of the dung beetles. I anticipate that the star is only just beginning to arise for dung beetles. This year it’s green boots and black helmets, next year, it’ll be all about the red carpet dresses and celebrity romances.