5 Things to Know and Love About Dung Beetles

Dung beetles meticulously polish their turd balls to make them easier to cart home. Villiers Steyn/Shutterstock

Who would expect greatness from a creature whose first name is essentially "turd"? The scarab beetle, despite being a kind of dung beetle, has been dining incognito, coasting on its name — and all that ancient Egyptian mystique — for millennia.

The dung beetle, on the other hand, has just been dining, literally, on dung.

But to walk away from this story with only that thought would be a disservice to dung beetles everywhere. This beetle is more like the unicorn of bugs.

Now what exactly makes the dung beetle such a magical little insect?

1. Dung beetles give freshly polished balls of poo a good name.

There's no getting around the fact that dung beetles love poop. They build with it, nest in it, eat it — the word you're looking for there is coprophagous — and lord knows what else they do with it in the privacy of their own homes. But dung beetles also offer a powerful lesson to us all on how to use every precious atom of the resources we're given.

Their lives revolve around gathering various animal feces and repurposing it. These little waste management technicians use it not only for homes, but as their main source of sustenance. And when it's time to start a family, they plant eggs deep inside those nourishing spheres.

As Bryan Nelson writes, "The environmental value of dung beetles shouldn't be understated. For instance, it's estimated that dung beetles save the United States cattle industry $380 million annually by repurposing livestock feces alone. The amazing recycling ability of dung beetles has even been proposed as a way to help curb global warming."

2. Their creations occasionally cause a great sensation.

Tumblebugs — a kind of dung beetle particularly passionate about rolling balls of poo on the ground — don't make headlines very often. But considering the nature of their interests and hobbies, when they do, everyone makes quite a stink about about it.

Visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for instance, were recently puzzled — and maybe a little freaked out — by turd balls rolling down park trails. The brown balls seemed to be moving on their own — possibly suggesting that feces had finally gained sentience.

But they weren't looking closely enough. Because if they did, they would have spotted a tiny little engineer, working steadily to roll those balls down the path, ultimately finding just the right spot to build their home.

"The female tumblebug will lay only one egg inside each ball of dung, allowing the developing larvae to have all the resources they need without having to compete with their siblings," the park explained in a Facebook post. "The male will help bury the balls of dung in the ground for safe keeping."

Check out a dung beetle rolling a mammoth ball of poop in the video below:

It certainly wouldn't be the first time dung beetles have caught the eye of humans in a big way. The previously mentioned scarab beetle not only lucked out with a non-turd-related name, it also gained a kind of reverence among ancient Egyptians. The idea was that the world itself was a kind of ball of dung — and scarab beetles kept it revolving.

The work was naturally very important, so much so that Egyptians associated beetles with Khepri, the god of the rising sun.

A bas-relief of scarab beetle on an ancient Egyptian Temple.
Scarab beetles were lucky enough to be associated with divinity, hence avoiding more dung-y associations. King Tut/Shutterstock

3. They're the strongest animals on Earth.

The brawniest bug — and likely, animal — on the planet is Onthophagus taurus, a type of horned dung beetle that's reportedly able to haul more than 1,100 times its own body weight. In superhero parlance, that's your average scrawny human towing six double-decker buses crammed full of people. (It's a pity Peter Parker wasn't bitten by a radioactive dung beetle. But then, Dung Man would have likely been a tough sell for Marvel Comics.)

But when dung beetles do get in a fight, it's a veritable clash of the micro-titans. Usually horned beetles will lock said horns in a kind of elimination match. Whichever adversary manages to push the other out of the path is declared a victor. That path most often leads to a female, who like many species, prizes strength above all.

And sometimes, as you can see in the video below, dung beetles will tussle over something even more precious: a nice ball of poop.

4. They're brilliant navigators.

Many animals use the sun to navigate, rather than ever-changing and unreliable landmarks on the ground. But dung beetles set to their compass to a much higher power — the galaxy itself. Sure, by day they use the sun to get around. But when the lights go off, according to a 2016 study published in Current Biology dung beetles will chart a course by the Milky Way.

a black beetle preparing for flight.
They may have a very intimate relationship with the ground, but dung beetles, like the earth-boring variety pictured here, pack a handy set of wings. Dennis van de Water/Shutterstock

One species in particular, Scarabaeus satyrus, relies on the stars, since it's only active at night. The research suggests the beetle may be able to discern varying gradients of brightness in the night sky, fixing on points of light to get those balls of dung to the right address. They will actually stop rolling and climb atop their poo ball to reorient themselves with the galaxy.

"We are the first to have shown that dung beetles are taking these snapshots," Swedish scientist Basil el Jundi, who led the study, told Science Alert. "We are also the first to show how they store and use the images inside their tiny brains."

It all adds up to pinpoint navigational accuracy — and exactly what they need considering their line of work. The last thing you want to do is haul a ball of poo to the wrong doorstep. Misunderstandings would most certainly ensue.

5. They make wonderful parents.

If your parents happened to be dung beetles, no one at school should be teasing you. In fact, that would mean you came from a very privileged home where everything was provided for and food was always on the table. Not to mention something like the insect equivalent of affection.

As a study published in Animal Behaviour points out, dung beetles are a rarity in the insect world for the care they shower on their young, although parental roles are strictly divided along gender lines. Dad brings home the bac— err, food. And mom is a bit of a homemaker, designing and building the living space. Some species, like Cephalodesmius dung beetles, even mate for life.

And just in case you thought turd-rolling beetles couldn't possibly get any more freaky, we'll leave you on this note. Dung beetle parents get a little help in the child-rearing department from genital worms.

That's right, tiny parasites called nematodes help baby beetles grow big and strong by boosting the number of good microbes in the nursery. Think of them as a kind of weird aunt who occasionally pops in from dad's genitals, to lend a hand with the kids.