In today’s unique blog we delve deeper into our natural world, exploring a particular unsung hero which keeps nature’s ball rolling…
Not all magnificent things in nature are big in size. Whilst the “Big 5” take centre stage on most safaris, there are many miracles taking place in the background (or in the ground for that matter)… many of which put on Mother Nature’s greatest show.
There’s a certain spectacle which takes place in our summer months which is particularly entertaining to witness. But for it to begin, it requires an animal to do its “business”. Dung beetles (of which there are more than 7000 species worldwide!) are an example of nature’s cleaners, gardeners and recyclers. These Coleopterans are incredible in every way. From their remarkable strength to the vital role they play in nutrient recycling, these creatures are an ecological force to be reckoned with.
Dung beetles are divided into four main groups; telecoprids (rollers), paracoprids (tunnellers), endocoprids (dwellers) as well as the cleptocoprids (which opportunistically steal dung balls from other beetles instead of making their own!).
The most famous of which (and fun to watch) is certainly the rollers which construct balls of dung more than 50 times heavier than themselves! These beetles push the balls upside down using their hind legs and armoured head for support. They reduce competition with other dung beetles by rolling dung away, making them extremely successful. However, this is not an easy task. The balls of dung are not only huge, they are heavy and need to be transported over many obstacles including rocks, roads and gruelling inclines! Somehow these beetles know exactly what needs to be done and where to go. A mystery and phenomenon like no other.
Dung beetles construct dung balls for a variety of reasons. They use the dung for food as well as breeding. Males may present females a “nuptial gift’ of dung in order to mate. She lays one single egg in the ball and buries it so that the inside of the ball can remain moist for the larva to feed on. A single telecoprid can lay more than 50 eggs per season, which means the males have a lot of work to do!
Here are some of the most mind-blowing facts about dung beetles:
- These insects can bury more than 1 metric ton of dung per hectare per year making them waste dispersal experts
- They assist in the dispersal and germination of plants as they bury seeds found in the dung they use
- By decomposing dung, they reduce disease and pest populations like flies
- In one large pile of droppings (such as elephant dung) there could be over a whopping 15 000 dung beetles
- They can navigate using the stars! Research shows that dung beetles find their way around by looking up and using the Milky Way to reach their desired destination
- Dung beetles are scarabs and are in the same family as rhino beetles (one of our “Little 5”)
- Their front legs are extremely strong and jagged, able to cut through compacted dung. Their heads are also very robust, used for digging and scraping dung together
- Honey badgers, hornbills, rollers (including many other birds), baboons, civets and mongoose are among the species that predate on dung beetles
These magnificent organisms are so important that if we had to remove them completely from our ecosystem, everything would eventually fail, affecting countless other species and ultimately the Big 5 too. It is a prime example of how everything in nature is interlinked and connected.
Have you been lucky enough to witness this marvel? If not, hopefully on your next safari you can also enjoy the “smaller” things that nature has to offer. After all, it’s all about the bigger picture!