10 Divine Facts About Dung Beetles

dung beetle standing on a ball created from manure

Villiers Steyn / Shutterstock

Dung beetles don't have the most glamorous name or job, but they are essential to manure management. About 8,000 species of dung beetles feast on manure, carrion, and rotting vegetation worldwide.

Of those 8,000 species, the IUCN Red List contains 780 species. Most are species of least concern or data deficient. However, three are critically endangered and 21 are endangered. There are 49 listed as vulnerable or near threatened.

Learn what makes dung beetles such a valuable member of the natural world.

1. Dung Beetles Provide Valuable Ecosystem Services

There's no getting around the fact that dung beetles love poop. They build with it, nest in it, and eat it, making them a coprophagous.

Their lives revolve around gathering various animal feces and repurposing it. They use it not only for homes but as their main source of sustenance. They plant eggs deep inside those nourishing spheres. It's estimated that dung beetles save the United States cattle industry $380 million annually by processing animal waste.

2.They Are Grouped Based on Their Dung Use

Dung beetles have three primary roles: Rollers, dwellers, or tunnelers. If a dung ball is rolling along the ground tended by a dung beetle, that is a roller species. Dweller species find manure and live on top of it, raising their young and eating it. Tunnelers dig through manure patties and bury it in the ground. Female tunnelers dwell below and sort the manure brought to them by males.

3. They Catch Human Attention

Limestone relief of a scarab beetle and vulture wings under a disk of the sun, Edfu, Egypt.

Print Collector / Getty Images / Getty Images

Tumblebugs, a kind of roller dung beetle, don't make headlines very often. But in August 2019, they did after visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park spotted balls of manure traveling park trails. Park rangers pointed out that the tumblebug's work kept the park trails clean of droppings.

It certainly wouldn't be the first time dung beetles have caught the eye of humans in a big way. The scarab beetle is a dung beetle that figured prominently in ancient Egyptian iconography. The ball of dung being rolled by scarab beetles represented the sun traveling the sky carrying within the seeds of new life.

4. They're the Strongest Animals on Earth

The brawniest bug — and likely, animal — on the planet is Onthophagus taurus, the bull-headed dung beetle that's reportedly able to haul more than 1,100 times its body weight. This strength is equivalent to a 150-pound human pulling six double-decker buses. Male dung beetles either sneak mating or lock horns in an elimination match. The ability to push an adversary out of the way clears the path to the female. Sometimes the beetles will wrestle over the dung balls as well.

5. They Navigate Using Celestial Orientation

African dung beetles rely on celestial navigation instead of the sun and moon. Before this discovery, researchers thought only humans, seals, and birds used the stars for navigation. These nocturnal dung beetles use the entire Milky Way rather than individual stars to navigate straight lines from the dung pile to their homes.

Research suggests the beetles discern varying gradients of brightness in the night sky, fixing on points of light to get those balls of dung to the right location.

Other dung beetles use celestial orientation as well. Diurnal dung beetles use the sun's position and celestial polarization (scattered sunlight) pattern to find their way.

6. Males and Females Care for Their Young

Dung beetles are a rarity in the insect world for the care they provide their young. Parental roles are strictly divided along gender lines, with the male providing food and the female tending the living space.

Dung beetle parents get help in the child-rearing department from the genital worms they carry. Tiny parasites called nematodes help baby beetles grow by boosting the number of good microbes in the nursery.

7. They Were Around in the Cretaceous Period

Dung beetles aren't evolutionary newcomers. Researchers have found evidence of them wrangling dinosaur dung. Coprolites, otherwise known as fossilized dung, contain dung beetle remains and tunnels. These coprolites demonstrate that dung beetles interacted with dinosaurs before mammals were the dominant species. Very few modern dung beetle species specialize in the dung of birds or lizards, which are closer relatives of dinosaurs. Scientists are unsure as to whether this change in diet is related to the same behaviors evolving multiple times or if it just was an evolutionary change based on the change in dominant species.

8. They Are Important Seed Dispersers

Through the course of their dealing with fecal matter, beetles plant many seeds. Some of these have gone through the digestive tract of herbivores first. Those seeds wind up in dung that the beetles then bury, planting the seeds. Some plants deceive beetles into planting seeds. The Ceratocaryum argenteum has seeds that mimic local antelope droppings: dark, round, and roughly the same size as the bontebok dung. Not only that, they have oils in them that make the seeds smell similar to the manure. The beetle rolls the false dung ball away from the plant, resulting in increased odds of successful germination.

9. They Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

These creatures play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cattle farming. Dung beetles found in cattle pastures burrow through and bury cow pats. This burying, mixing, and aeration of the manure increases soil fertility and reduces methane release. Unfortunately, modern commercial agriculture cattle operations create situations that endanger dung beetles. Most cattle don't enjoy pasture situations during the bulk of the year, and commonly used cattle medications make the manure unusable by the beetles. That's regrettable because dung beetles also reduce disease-carrying fly populations by 95%.

10. Some Species Are Endangered

Because dung beetles specialize in the type of animal waste they handle, changes in the mammals in an area lead to depletion of the associated dung beetle. Also, tropical logging reduces the tree cover needed by regional dung beetles. In Spain, one endangered species faced the effects of tourism. Much of its natural range was converted to golf courses and roads, making the habitat unsuitable for dung beetles and the rabbits that provided the dung. Another species is endangered through the collection of the species for use in trinkets.

Save the Dung Beetles

  • Avoid the use of chemical herbicides, pesticides, and dewormers to avoid killing these beneficial insects.
  • Choose sustainable wood products certified by organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council.
  • Plant native plants to attract endemic herbivores.
  • Don't purchase trinkets or jewelry created from dung beetles.
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