Guest Question: What do dung beetles do with dung?

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Some of the most interesting things you will be likely to come across on your South African safari are not always the biggest or most glamorous of creatures. Take some time to watch the rolling labours of the dung beetle and then consider what they actually do with all that dung.

Waste Not Want Not

Dung beetles are known as coprophages which simply means dung eaters. Technically the adult beetles don't eat the dung, but rather thrive on the liquid present in the manure of herbivores, which they drink.

The dried bits of half-digested matter are also important in the life cycle of the dung beetle and are used to make cosy, edible nests for their offspring.

While they aren't fussy when it comes to mealtimes, different dung beetles have specific ways in which they use this excrement for nesting purposes:

Rollers - The antics of the telocoprid dung beetle usually attracts the most attention from safari-goers. The male beetles selects a juicy piece of animal dung and starts rolling. When he thinks the ball is impressive enough, he releases a pheromone which attracts any nearby females. The lucky lady then latches onto the ball and rides on top of it while the male pushes it towards a spot with suitably soft soil. When they have mated, the female lays an egg in the ball and they use their heads to dig a hole. Up to three balls at a time are deposited in one of these holes, but the top one always hatches first.

Tunnelers - These dung beetles, known as paracoprids, get down to business by tunnelling into and under the dung pile and laying their eggs right there.

Dwellers - Endocoprids burrow into the dung and lay their eggs right in the thick of things.

Stealers - As the name suggests, the kleptocoprid dung beetles find ready-made dung balls, kill the telocoprid larvae within and lay their own eggs in their place.

When the dung beetle larvae hatch, they have a ready source of nutrients to last them throughout their metamorphoses in to fully-fledged dung rollers.

Adapted for the Job at Hand

Dung beetles are perfectly designed for their clean up task. Their sensitive antennae can pick up the scent of the best dung piles for miles and they have strong wings to carry them to the scene.

The hind legs have a series of spurs along them which are perfect for holding, rolling and manoeuvring dung balls in reverse. In this way they can push a load of up to 50 times their own weight, even up a steep slope.

Their strong front legs (and horns in some species) are also good for fighting off any would-be challengers with eyes on their prize – be it a prime piece of poo or a likely mate.

Ask your game ranger to explain more about this interesting species and its important role in nature the next time you are paused for a 'dung-beetle' crossing on your South African safari.

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Monday, 19 November 2018