National Geographic
Menu

Lost World Secrets Discovered in Fossilized Mega Dung Balls

A new study of thirty-million-year-old fossil “megadung” from extinct giant South American mammals reveals evidence of complex ecological interactions and theft of dung beetles’ food stores by other animals, according to a study published in the journal Palaeontology.

 dung-beetle-picture-1.jpg

NGS photo of modern dung beetles by Chris Johns

“Thirty million years ago South America was home to what is known to paleontologists as the South America Megafauna, including some truly giant extinct herbivores: bone-covered armadillos the size of a small car, ground sloths 6 meters [20 feet] tall and elephant-size hoofed mammals unlike anything alive today,” Palaeontology says in a statement released today.

“Megafauna would have produced megadung.”

“And of course, megafauna would have produced megadung!”

The research was done by Graduate Student Victoria Sánchez and Dr Jorge Genise of the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

dung-beetle-picture-2.jpgThey report traces made by other creatures within fossil dung balls.

“The beetles certainly had their work cut out for them and although the dung beetles themselves did not fossilize, we know they were fully engaged in business because, amazingly, the results of their activities are preserved as fossil dung balls, some more than 40 million years old, and some as large as tennis balls,” Palaeontology says.

NGS illustration of white dung beetle by Hashime Murayama

“Now paleontologists in Argentina studying these dung balls have discovered that they have even more to tell us about the ecology of this lost world of giant mammals, but at a rather different scale.”

“Some of these are just the results of chance interactions” Sánchez explains.

“Burrowing bees, for example, dug cells in the ground where the dung balls were buried, and some of these happen to have been dug into the balls.

“But other traces record the behaviour of animals actively stealing the food resources set aside by the dung beetles.

“The shapes and sizes of these fossilized burrows and borings in the dung balls indicate that other beetles, flies and earthworms were the culprits.

“Although none of these animals is preserved in these rocks, the fossil dung balls preserve in amazing detail a whole dung-based ecosystem going on right under the noses of the giant herbivores of 30 million years ago.”

dung-beetle-picture-3.jpg

NGS photo by Chris Johns

Extinct Dung Beetles “Deserve a Medal”

“The dung beetle has fallen on hard times,” the researchers note in Palaeontology. “Once worshipped by ancient Egyptians its status has now slipped to that of unsung and forgotten hero, the butt of scatological jokes. Yet the dung beetle is truly heroic.”

“Were it not for the dung beetle the world would be knee-deep in animal droppings.”

“It is a well known ‘fact’ that were it not for the dung beetle the world would be knee-deep in animal droppings, especially those of large herbivores like cows, rhinos and elephants which, because they eat more food, produce more waste,” the researchers continue.

“By burying that waste dung beetles not only remove it from the surface, they improve and fertilise the soil and reduce the number of disease-carrying flies that would otherwise infest the dung.

“If the modern dung beetle deserves praise for these global sanitation efforts, then the extinct dung beetles of ancient South America deserve a medal.”

The dung beetle research by Sánchez and Genise was funded by CONICET, The Argentinean National Research Council for Science and Technolology.

More from National Geographic News:

Dung Fossils Suggest Dinosaurs Ate Grass

Dino Dung: Paleontology’s Next Frontier?

For Dung Beetles, Monkey Business Is Serious Stuff

Dung Beetles Navigate by the Moon, Study Says