Written by: Berenice Meintjes
The team at Kosi Forest Lodge has a fascination for a beloved local resident – the dung beetle. Do you think a dung beetle ever wakes up on a Monday morning thinking, “Not that same sh*t again”? Do they actually like the smell of dung? Is it better when it’s wetter? Do they sleep on it? Do they feed it to dung beetle babies? There are so many questions we had about the determined dung beetle, so we thought we’d do a bit of digging and share our findings about these fascinating underdogs of the African bushveld with you.
Dung beetles do, in fact, live on poop. While they prefer to eat the excrement of herbivores which contain more plant nutrients, they find the waste of omnivores easier to find because of the smell. They do not live exclusively on animal waste though, and do eat other plant matter.
Many species of dung beetles (creatively called ‘rollers’) roll the dung into balls, which they push slowly in a straight line, despite all obstacles, to their holes. Dedicated parents, they do indeed do this primarily to make nests and feed their young. They bury their eggs in the excrement and dung beetle babies wake surrounded by the delicious smell and nutrition of dung called a ‘brooding ball’. Dung beetles are excellent, if somewhat traditional, parents. Mom usually stays home to look after the dung beetle babies, while dad goes out shovelling poop to provide for his family.
If you have ever watched one of these critters rolling a huge ball of dung backwards up a hill, you will also know that dung beetles are surprisingly strong. They regularly push dung balls 50 times their own weight and the known record-holding roller has pushed dung that was 1,141 times its own weight. That would be like a 90kg person pushing a 102 tonne truck.
Indeed, the fresher the dung the better, though each species of dung beetle may be rather particular about the type of poop to which it is attracted. On hot days in the African bushveld, dung beetles climb on their poo to cool their feet off. How do we know this? Well of course some crazy scientist (Dr Jochen Smolka, from Lund University) put silicone booties on dung beetles and found that they needed to take less regular breaks on their dung on hot days.
If you are lucky enough while staying at Kosi Forest Lodge in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, on a clear, starry night you may witness a dung beetle dance. Their stage, naturally, is the top of a pile of dung. Recent studies have confirmed that while they dance they are using the Milky Way to navigate. Again, how do we know this? You guessed it – some scientists literally put wide-rimmed hats on dung beetles so that they couldn’t see the stars and observed what happened.
Dung beetles play an instrumental role in the ecosystem. Apart from cleaning up the mess that others leave behind, they do nutrient recycling and improve the soil structure. Have you ever noticed how few flies there are in the African bushveld? This is thanks to the cleaning work done by dung beetles and the mites which they carry which reduce fly larvae. Australia actually imported these powerful little garbage collectors to mitigate their fly problem.
The perfect balance of the bush rests on these dedicated little creatures and you may find yourself joining us and the crazy-cool scientists who simply adore these unsung little heroes of Africa.