Sand Rivers indaba

Dung beetles – you are what you eat?

The elephant dung is fresh, and it’s a heaving mass of dung beetles; some fly straight into the poop (makes sense doesn’t it?), others sprint in along the ground. Some are busy rolling dung balls in the poo, a different lot are burrowing down underneath their lunch…

Don’t know about you, but I love dung beetles. They’re always so busy and industrious. There are over 60 000 species globally found in 257 genera.

Why do dung beetles roll balls of dung, in fact most don’t – it’s only 10% that roll. If you take your average elephant dropping, up to 90 species can be found tunnelling and storing the dung for feeding or breeding. 

As for the dung ball rollers, they bury the ball, lay their eggs in it, and when the eggs hatch, the offspring have got a lovely larder to feed on. As if rolling and eating dung isn’t bad enough, the males of certain species have to do a handstand whilst letting off pheromones to attract a mate.

There’s a fabulous book, Dance of the Dung Beetles, by Marcus Byrne and Helen Lunn, which has the most amazing info about dung beetles – I thoroughly recommend it to anyone remotely interested in nature (or poo). 

In it they describe some fascinating research done in Tsavo National Park, Kenya. A calculation revealed that Tsavo elephants defecated up to 17 times per day. At that time, elephant density was approximately 4.4 elephants per square mile, which translated into about 75 piles of dung per day which equalled 27 000 piles of elephant poo per square mile per year! And it was largely thanks to the dung beetles that most of that dung, and plant seeds contained therein, made its way into the soil as nutrients keeping the soil healthy while simultaneously suppressing fly populations. 

I remember clearly one morning coming across a mountain of fresh elephant dung on a track in the bush – by early evening it was just about gone. No surprise, therefore, that the maxim by which dung beetles live is Hey man s**t happens!

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