Living in the dung, looking at the stars

Dung beetles don’t have a glamorous life. They eat and often live in dung. They spend their days (or nights) finding dung dropped by a larger animal, rolling chunks of it into balls, and then bowling the balls home to their underground tunnels. Don’t under-estimate them — we would be knee-deep in unspeakable muck if they (and microbes) didn’t do the dirty work. They also have a nifty trick up their pongy sleeves.

African dung beetles navigate using the Milky Way. They are able to roll their balls of dung home in a dead straight line using the starry band of light even on moonless nights. They don’t just follow the line of the Milky Way itself, but can set a course to any angle at the band and get home safely. It’s vital to them to go quickly home to the right place so that they aren’t mugged of their precious loot on the way back by lazier dung beetles.  No other insect is know to navigate by the Milky Way. Researcher Marie Dacke discovered their stunning trick in 2013 by capturing a few dung beetles and taking them to a planetarium where she could control which stars they could see. At the few times of year the Milky Way is low on the horizon, the dung beetles have a hard time finding their way around.

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