The Time for Rolling Dung

If you have been fortunate enough to enjoy a summer safari in the Greater Kruger region you will perhaps remember that it is the time of year when we get to witness one of Africa’s more spoken-about phenomena: Dung Beetles, rolling around balls of dung that are drastically changing in size from one beetle to the next.

During the winter months, dung beetles enter a state of hibernation. As summer approaches and the warmer wetter conditions take over, the dung beetles start to emerge and throughout the summer, we can see hundreds of different species of dung beetles. In South Africa alone, 780 different species of dung beetles have been recorded. However, identifying the different species of dung beetles can be exceptionally difficult, and a true expertise is required to differentiate the different species.

How to tell them apart

The simplest way of looking at the differences in dung beetles is to place them into four categories: Telecoprid, Endocoprid, Paracoprid, and Kleptocoprid.

  1. Telecoprid Dung beetles will construct the ball of dung and will be seen rolling it away from the dung pile to an area with suitable substrate for burying.
  2. Endocoprid dung beetles will burrow and nest within the pile of dung.
  3. Paracoprid dung beetles will still construct dung balls; however, instead of rolling the ball from point A to B, they will tunnel directly under the pile of dung and deposit the ball at the end of the tunnel for consumption and incubation.
  4. Kleptocoprid dung beetles, hence the name, have been observed to perform two different acts. Firstly, Kleptocoprid will steal an already made ball from a Telecoprid and take it as their own for the females to lay eggs in and bury. Secondly, some species of Kleptocoprid are also known to be brood parasites, whereby the female will locate where other dung beetles have buried their ball and dig down to lay her own eggs within the ball.

Recent studies have made a very interesting discovery after conducting research on how nocturnal dung beetles navigate their way through the night. The team of researchers constructed an artificial night sky with a simplified Milky Way streak that simulated different patterns of stars and brightness gradients. They found that the dung beetles would get lost when given a pattern of stars within the artificial Milky Way, and they would only maintain their heading when two sides of the artificial Milky Way differed in brightness.

Poetry in Motion

 Let me share a humorous anecdote to lighten the mood. Picture this: I’m driving through the bush, marvelling at the dung beetle ballet happening around me. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I become an unwitting participant in their performance. A daring dung beetle, aiming for a grand entrance, zooms straight over my windshield and — you guessed it — smacks me right in the forehead! It was a hilarious, if not slightly unexpected, introduction to the world of dung beetles.

And with that in mind I thought it would be quite fitting to end this blog with a poem, written by Sam Illingworth.

A sharp aroma seeps across the sky,

You scurry to its source.

Working quickly to carefully craft

A sustaining sphere of pungent spice.

With cargo now in tow, you

Cast off across this barren sea

In direction unknown,

Until looking up,

You catch your breath

And ride the Milky Way;

Stars lit up like cat’s eyes

To guide you home.