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Why Dung Beetles Dance

Here’s the poop on why dung beetles dance: to orient themselves. The insects “dance”—or spin atop their dung balls—when they hit a snag in their paths that throws them off their straight-line courses, scientists report in a new study. (Watch a video of the dung beetle dance.) In recent experiments, beetles were more likely to...

Here’s the poop on why dung beetles dance: to orient themselves.

The insects “dance”—or spin atop their dung balls—when they hit a snag in their paths that throws them off their straight-line courses, scientists report in a new study.

(Watch a video of the dung beetle dance.)

In recent experiments, beetles were more likely to dance when the insects encountered an obstacle or lost control of their balls—suggesting the dance allows them to get their bearings again.

When a dung beetle finds a dung pile, it cuts off a piece, shapes the poop into a ball, and rolls the ball away to a distant location for burial and consumption.

With dung-ball thieves always underfoot, a ball-bearing beetle has to hustle—and a straight line is the most direct method of escape from competitors, according to the study, published January 18 in the journal PloS ONE.

But this can be a challenge, since dung beetles roll their balls facing backward, their heads to the ground, oblivious of obstacles or holes that lie ahead.

A dung beetle atop its ball. Photograph courtesy Emily Baird.

“Our findings are exciting because they suggest that dung beetles have developed very clever, robust techniques for orienting in a complex and ever-changing environment,” study leader Emily Baird, a functional zoologist at Lund University in Sweden, told me by email.

Baird found dung beetles obliging participants in the experiments, which took place on a farm in northwestern South Africa.

“It’s always great fun to do experiments with the dung beetles, as they are willing to roll and dance for long periods of time, even when we put them in the most unusual experimental situations, such as making them roll along a curved track, or causing them to repeatedly fall off a drop,” Baird said.

(Play Dung Beetle Derby on the National Geographic Kids website.)

“Where most animals would try to escape, or cease to behave in this situation, the dung beetles accept these disruptions and will continue to roll and dance all day long.”

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Meet the Author

Christine Dell'Amore
Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.