Shenton Safaris

Life without wings – Addo's extraordinary dung beetles

Original source: bushboundgirl.com

If humans had the same determination and sense of purpose as dung beetles, perhaps the world would be a better place…

These mini 4x4s, of which there are 800 species living in South Africa, are fascinating creatures. If you have ever paused to watch one trying to push a ball of dung over a little rise – head down and back legs up – you will know exactly what I mean. Giving up is rarely an option, even when its precious cargo keeps rolling back down the incline and he is forced to start his ascent all over again.

The dung beetle’s expertly made poo parcels have many uses. They are a source of nourishment, an ideal den for laying eggs, and for some male species, a nuptial gift to lure in a lucky lady, the bigger the ball of dung, the more impressive… how’s that for a romantic wedding gift!?

But the dung beetles in South Africa’s Addo Elephant Park in the Eastern Cape are even more unique because they don’t have wings. They are a sub-species named Circellium bacchu or simply called the Addo Elephant Park’s flightless dung beetles, one of the rarest species of dung beetle. They once had a much wider range but due to the disappearance of elephants, rhinos and buffalo (the producers of their favourite dung) in many areas, they are now almost exclusively endemic to Addo. It’s no wonder with the reserve having more than 500 ellies!

Addo’s dung beetles can get very big! From about 22 to 47 mm long. They can also role up to 50 times their weight! Amazing! © Jonker Fourie

Addo’s dung beetles can get very big! From about 22 to 47 mm long. They can also role up to 50 times their weight! Amazing! © Jonker Fourie

But the question I have been trying to answer is why. Why did these particular dung beetles evolve to having no wings?

© Scott Ramsay

© Scott Ramsay

One theory (which I read in the Journal of Experimental Biology) is based on research done by Marcus Bryne and Francis Duncan of the University of Witwatersrand. It suggests that by not having wings, these dung beetles have been able to evolve a ‘nifty’ way of breathing which helps them to survive Addo’s arid conditions.

Instead of wings, flightless dung beetles have a tightly sealed elytra (wing case), which supports a convective cooling system where heat is drawn away from the insect’s body.

If you have held a dung beetle you will also know they have a strong grip!  © Dianne-Tipping-Woods of Afribird

If you have held a dung beetle you will also know they have a strong grip! © Dianne-Tipping-Woods of Afribird

Personally I would have thought that having wings would be like having two built in fans, l obviously wouldn’t make a very good scientist!

Pleased to meet you little dung beetle… © Theresa Lozier

Pleased to meet you little dung beetle… © Theresa Lozier

© Brian J.McMorrow

© Brian J.McMorrow

So next time you’re in Addo Elephant Park (just an hours drive from PE), don’t forget to stop and give some attention to these special dung beetles. The work they do may not seem very important, but it is – their tunnelling movements (used to bury the ball of dung in the ground once eggs have been laid in it), air-rate the soil and spread organic matter over the ground like compost.

Recently scientists discovered that dung beetles also use the milky way to navigate their movements at night, but that’s another story… watch this space!

Rachel was hosted by Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism.



Rachel Lang

Hi, I’m Rach . If not adventuring in the African bush, the chances are I’m dreaming about it. My childhood played a big role in this passion as I was privileged to travel much of Southern Africa from an early age. Needless to say, I’m happiest barefoot with a sketchbook in hand – watching elephants at a water hole or listening to lions roaring around a campfire. Wildlife, children and storytelling are a big part of my life. Follow my adventures on my blog www.bushboundgirl.com

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