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Dung Beetles Navigate Via the Milky Way, First Known in Animal Kingdom

Talk about star power—a new study shows that dung beetles navigate via the Milky Way, the first known species to do so in the animal kingdom.

The tiny insects can orient themselves to the bright stripe of light generated by our galaxy, and move in a line relative to it, according to recent experiments in South Africa.

“This is a complicated navigational feat—it’s quite impressive for an animal that size,” said study co-author Eric Warrant, a biologist at the University of Lund in Sweden.

picture of a dung beetle

A dung beetle rolling its ball in South Africa. Photograph courtesy Eric Warrant.

Moving in a straight line is crucial to dung beetles, which live in a rough-and-tumble world where competition for excrement is fierce. (Play “Dung Beetle Derby” on the National Geographic Kids website.)

Once the beetles sniff out a steaming pile, males painstakingly craft the dung into balls and roll them as far away from the chaotic mound as possible, often toting a female that they have also picked up. The pair bury the dung, which later becomes food for their babies.

But it’s not always that easy. Lurking about the dung pile are lots of dung beetles just waiting to snatch a freshly made ball. (Related: “Dung Beetles’ Favorite Poop Revealed.”)

That’s why ball-bearing beetles have to make a fast beeline away from the pile.

“If they roll back into the dung pile, it’s curtains,” Warrant said. If thieves near the pile steal their ball, the beetle has to start all over again, which is a big investment of energy.

Seeing Stars 

Scientists already knew that dung beetles can move in straight lines away from dung piles by detecting a symmetrical pattern of polarized light that appears around the sun. We can’t see this pattern, but insects can thanks to special photoreceptors in their eyes.

Milky Way picture

The Milky Way glimmers over Indonesia. Photograph by Justin Ng, Your Shot.

But less well-known was how beetles use visual cues at night, such as the moon and its much weaker polarized light pattern. So Warrant and colleagues went to a game farm in South Africa to observe the nocturnal African dung beetle Scarabaeus satyrus. (Read another Weird & Wild post on why dung beetles dance.)

Attracting the beetles proved straightforward: The scientists collected buckets of dung, put them out, and waited for the beetles to fly in.

But their initial observations were puzzling. S. satyrus could still roll a ball in a straight line even on moonless nights, “which caused us a great deal of grief—we didn’t know how to explain this at all,” Warrant said.

Then, “it occurred to us that maybe they were using the stars—and it turned out they were.”

Dapper Beetles

To test the star theory, the team set up a small, enclosed table on the game reserve, placed beetles in them, and observed how the insects reacted to different sky conditions. The team confirmed that even on clear, moonless nights, the beetles could still navigate their balls in a straight line.

To show that the beetles were focusing on the Milky Way, the team moved the table into the Johannesburg Planetarium, and found that the beetles could orient equally well under a full starlit sky as when only the Milky Way was present. (See Milky Way pictures.)

Lastly, to confirm the Milky Way results, the team put little cardboard hats on the study beetles’ heads, blocking their view of the sky. Those beetles just rolled around and around aimlessly, according to the study, published recently in the journal Current Biology.

Picture of a dung beetle

The scientists put hats on the dung beetles to block their ability to see stars. This beetle, which is wearing a clear hat, acted as a control in one experiment. Photograph courtesy Eric Warrant.

Dung beetle researcher Sean D. Whipple, of the Entomology Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said by email that the “awesome results …. provide strong evidence for orientation by starlight in dung beetles.”

He added that this discovery reveals another potential negative impact of light pollution, a global phenomenon that blocks out stars.

“If artificial light—from cities, houses, roadways, etc.—drowns out the visibility of the night sky, it could have the potential to impact effective orientation and navigation of dung beetles in the same way as an overcast sky,” Whipple said.

Keep On Rollin’

Study co-author Warrant added that other dung beetles likely navigate via the Milky Way, although the galaxy is most prominent in the night sky in the Southern Hemisphere.

What’s more, it’s “probably a widespread skill that insects have—migrating moths might also be able to do it.”

As for the beetles themselves, they were “very easy to work with,” he added.

“You can do anything you want to them, and they just keep on rolling.”

Comments

  1. Stew
    Toronto
    April 1, 4:31 pm

    And all of this ability is a product of evolution,ya sure.

  2. jessica
    washington
    December 11, 2013, 10:08 pm

    what kind of animal is on the header

  3. Ian
    September 22, 2013, 4:34 pm

    You people put hats on bugs in the name of science. A thousand salutations to you, you magnificent people. You should all be crowned.

  4. Noel
    USA
    July 29, 2013, 10:27 am

    The sacred scarab of ancient Egypt is a symbol of the immortal soul which travels to the stars upon leaving the physical body. If this story is truth it would be just one more of the many connections between ancient Egyptians and their/our cosmic ancestors.

  5. nevets
    May 16, 2013, 12:49 am

    This was known in ancient Kemet.

  6. Cat
    February 15, 2013, 6:47 pm

    Very interesting piece of work indeed. Thanks Eric for all your clarifications. The discussion really enlightens the shadow zones in this post. What about a rotating platform in the planetarium if ever you can’t do the operation described by Martin?

  7. madhan
    shimoga
    February 13, 2013, 3:02 am

    ya its amazing to know not only the human to navigate by using stars ,sun ,moon etc

  8. PRADEEP
    HIMACHAL ,INDIA
    February 10, 2013, 6:24 am

    INTRESTING INFORMATION ,WHAT
    MOTIVATE U TO ESTABLISH BEHAVIOUR OF DUNG BEETAL WITH GALAXY?

  9. Eric Warrant
    Lund Sweden
    February 2, 2013, 1:29 am

    Dear Martin,
    Thanks for this good explanation about planetariums – it sounds indeed as though the Johannesburg planetarium should be able to produce this MW rotation. If it is possible to produce it rapidly (i.e. “to fast forward ” the night) then we could test this is in real time on the beetles. It is certainly a testable hypothesis worth investigating. I doubt they would time-compensate like migrating day-active insects (like monarch butterflies). The reason is that their rolling activity doesn’t last for more than 30 mins at most (and usually much less), and during this time the MW probably only moves marginally. Thus dung beetles should turn in an arc as the MW moves in a “fast-forward” situation in a planetarium. Thanks Martin for an interesting discussion! Warm regards, Eric

  10. Martin Lewicki
    Adelaide Planetarium
    February 1, 2013, 12:13 am

    Eric

    Diurnal motion is native to every planetarium projector including our small Zeiss ZKP1, therefore also native to the Johannesburg’s Zeiss.

    The swinging motion of the MW that I am referring to is due to the galactic plane is inclined to the earth’s equator by about 60 degrees. So, during the course of the night the MW can be seen making a slow swing, like a wobble, changing it orientation in the sky and along with its points of contact on the horizon. This suggests the beetles rolling direction should swing around too during the course of the night in tandem – unless they correct for it as some birds ans insects do with the sun.

    for example. At this time of the year the MW in the north hemisphere at latitude 35N runs overhead from ENE to WSW in early evening. But by midnight it has swung around to NNE to SSW and by 3am it is low in the west but running almost due N-S. This motion should be easily executed by the Johannesburg Zeiss.

    It is instructive to download one of the free planetarium software like Stellarium and put it into fish-eye mode (whole sky visible) and run the time animation forward and watch the MW swing around. Then you will see that the beetles would have to alter their rolling direction during the night – if indeed they carry out this rolling behavior over a long enough time.

    Martin

  11. Eric Warrant
    Lund, Sweden
    January 29, 2013, 3:27 pm

    Thanks Stefan for your kind comments, and for again bringing up the issue of rotating the Milky way in the Planetarium. And thanks Martin from the Adelaide Planetarium for offering a solution! I have no idea if it is possible to do this in Johannesburg, but it sounds like it is possible in Adelaide. Actually the projection system in Johannesburg is amazing. It’s a huge Carl Zeiss planetarium projector, built in Jena in the 1920s. Apparently only a handful were ever made and most of them got blown up during the bombing raids of the Second World War. There are only a couple of survivors, one still in service in Johannesburg. Each star or small constellation of stars is projected by a dedicated lens and light source. The projector itself looks like the creature from the film “The Alien” – large and black and bristling with moving parts. Its an astonishing piece of equipment even by today’s standards. It must have been literally out of this world in the 1920s. So I have no idea if it is capable of the maneuver Martin suggests, but it might be.

    Warm regards

    Eric Warrant

  12. King KAM
    January 29, 2013, 3:05 pm

    How do you suppose we (humans) settled Polynesia?

  13. Martin Lewicki
    Adelaide Planetarium
    January 28, 2013, 11:07 pm

    Eric Warrant stated they could not “rotate the Milky Way” in the Johannesburg planetarium to see if the beetles would roll in curves. Well, I would have shut off the stars and leave only the Milky Way and then advance diurnal motion at sufficient speed so the Milky way would swing in orientation around fast enough to see it the beetles would roll in tandem curves.

  14. peris patel
    mauritius
    January 28, 2013, 2:38 am

    Resently i know this…..very intresting ha.

  15. jerry wilson
    COLORADO
    January 27, 2013, 8:49 pm

    IS THIS WHAT THE SCRIPTURES CALL THE FRINGES OF God’s WAYS?

  16. Mark
    January 27, 2013, 8:34 pm

    they got lost because it was dark NOT bc they couldn’t use their little dung beetle star charts ;

    when the milky way in the planetarium was turned off, there was no light.

  17. jerry wilson
    Colorado
    January 27, 2013, 2:42 pm

    Further evidence of a creator who has a wonderful personality and great wisdom whose name is Jehovah
    Come to your local kingdom Hall to learn about him in a friendly and dignified atmosphere

  18. Stefan
    Zurich, Switzerland
    January 27, 2013, 4:19 am

    Dear Eric,

    very interesting study. I am a researcher myself and at first I was sceptical, since in the article here and in other (german) online journals several important information were missing (e.g. what happens in the planetarium in complete darkness). And, as mentioned in other comments, how disturbing is the hat.
    In my opinion, it is a pity, that rotating (or an s-slope movement) the milky way in the planetarium is not possible, since this would be direct and non-discussible evidence.
    It is very interesting what strategies animals have developed over the past (billion) years.

    All the best
    Stefan

  19. zhangdie
    china
    January 26, 2013, 2:23 pm

    It’s amazing~

  20. ILYAS
    Pakistan
    January 26, 2013, 2:21 pm

    That’s simply amazing, even the distant stars, that are of no use to humans, are crucial to beetles, . . .awesome

  21. nick
    Chicago, IL
    January 26, 2013, 11:17 am

    don’t stop rolling your balls…

  22. Roza
    israel
    January 26, 2013, 1:22 am

    mike you asked important questions- nothing of what I read in the article makes sense to me anymore- can someone clarify for me what kind of light the beetles are attracted to ( or is it unknown?) and why do we think it’s the milky way? If the same kind of light cannot be produced in an arytificial setting then what is really moving them? Spooky!!

  23. Sam Bridgham
    Durango
    January 26, 2013, 12:46 am

    I want a job putting hats on beetles, too!

  24. Sandy
    Canada
    January 25, 2013, 9:24 pm

    I enjoyed this greatly. Thank you for sharing.
    You have my dream job

  25. Lillt
    minnisota
    January 25, 2013, 9:01 pm

    wow that is soo cool how there can do that! :D i wish i can do that too.

  26. Kamel El-Darwish
    Finland
    January 25, 2013, 5:59 pm

    Regarding LanceManyon’s fine comment/questions:
    “why would a beetle (or any creature) moving in a straight line be considered worthy of investigation?”
    It confirms a vital (survival) connection in nature, between orientating star beacons (light) in the night sky and life on land, that might otherwise be ignored and impacted by urban light pollution.
    “Why would a dung beetle be any different?”
    Modern science is founded on a belief that a hypothesis must be disprovable, i.e. that results can be contrary to prediction. Besides, is it not useful to learn if the survival of many different creatures, including dung beetles and Homo sapiens, can be similarly impacted by urban light pollution?

  27. JW
    Virginia
    January 25, 2013, 2:43 pm

    Is there any evidence that Elephants follow a similar navigational path since the Dung Beetle operates an Elephant’s environmental services operation?

  28. Leenya Rideout
    New York City
    January 25, 2013, 11:38 am

    While running in Pennsylvania about 4 years ago, I came across two dung beetles in the middle of a road. I wanted to save them from being run over by a car so I attempted to roll their dung ball to the side of the road using a stick. I ran on and on my way back, they had managed to get the dung ball back to the same place in the middle of the road and were continuing on. This was all in broad daylight but thinking back, they were rolling in the direction of the milky way.

  29. jackie
    UK/USA
    January 25, 2013, 11:03 am

    The ancient Egyptians,sort of knew that the Dung Beetles are special too

    http://www.mythphile.com/2012/01/ancient-egyptian-scarab-beetle/

  30. Eric Warrant
    Lund, Sweden
    January 25, 2013, 9:16 am

    Thanks again for all the interest in dung beetle orientation! It has been interesting (and sometimes sobering) to read the posts here. Quite a number ask about other influences that might account for their straight-line rolling behaviour. Here are some explanations to these many questions:

    1. Cardboard hats. I personally invented these hats and of course I realised that in themselves they may have been a disturbing influence. Dave (from the UK) who has obviously read our article has noticed the very thing one always needs to do in order to rule out such disturbances – a so-called “control” experiment. In our case this involved doing experiments with clear plastic hats that weighed the same as the cardboard hats, were the same size and were taped on to the beetle in the same way. The only difference was that the beetles could see the stars with the clear hats – and then they rolled straight as if the hat was absent. So the cardboard hat has no influence apart from blocking the view of the sky.

    2. Magnetic field cues. We do not know if dung beetles have a magnetic sense, but if they do, and they are using it to guide straight-line rolling, then they would never have deviated from a straight line course no matter which of our experimental treatments were applied (since all our treatments were designed to disrupt only the visual sense). Thus because cardboard hats, overcast skies and total darkness all caused the beetles to roll in circles, this means that magnetic cues are not being used.

    3. Olfactory cues. One reader wonders whether avoiding the the smell of dung helps beetles to roll away from a dung pile. This is a nice idea and could actually be true in nature (although the smell of the ball itself may overwhelm the smell of the increasingly distant dung pile). However it is not likely to have played a role in our experiments since the dung pile was absent from our experimental arena. The only dung present was the dung ball the beetle itself was rolling.

    4. Darkness and overcast skies. Several asked about what the beetles do in total darkness (which we used in the planetarium, and which we have included in our paper) or under an overcast sky (which we had on one single night in the field – also in our paper). In both cases the beetles roll in circles, which reinforces the importance of the Milky Way. Also, if we remove the Milky Way in the planetarium and only project the sky’s 18 brightest stars, the beetles are still unable to roll in straight lines.

    5. Rotating the Milky Way: We too have thought of the possibility of rotating the entire Milky way in the planetarium to see if the beetles then roll in arcs, but unfortunately this was not possible in the planetarium we used in Johannesburg.

    6. Dung pile mine fields. Dung is a rare resource in Africa – the dung density doesn’t look like it does in a pasture full of cows in Europe. In Africa the dung piles can be quite sparse, so there is little chance of beetles rolling from its original pile into another one (where it would again encounter severe risks of ball theft and aggression).

    7. A “first”? We have never said that this is the first example of an animal that navigates using the stars. Of course this is clearly not true. However what we have said is that this is the first example we know of of an animal that uses the broad stripe of the Milky Way to navigate. And it is very possible that more animals will be discovered with this talent in the future. So we certainly do not claim that this is the first and only example of an animal that uses the Milky Way to navigate!

    I hope this clears up some of the questions! Good thinking – this is EXACTLY how scientists should be, not taking anything for granted but being sceptical. Thanks for your scepticism!

    Warmest regards

    Eric Warrant (study co-author)
    Lund Sweden

  31. LanceManyon
    January 25, 2013, 8:44 am

    Maybe I’m missing something — why would a beetle (or any creature) moving in a straight line be considered worthy of investigation? If I want to walk in a straight line, I pick any object (tree, building, milky way) in my field of vision and progress toward it. Voila — a straight path occurs. Why would a dung beetle be any different?

  32. Dave
    UK
    January 25, 2013, 8:02 am

    A lot of people are saying maybe the hats disrupted their navigation abilities because of the weight or simply having an object on their head made it difficult. Look at the article again – the picture shows a beetle with a clear hat that was used as a control. Evidently, this beetle could still navigate fine with the hat on, and the only difference between it and the ones with the opaque hats is that it could see up.

  33. Granted
    Raleigh
    January 25, 2013, 7:05 am

    Now no one can ever claim that dung beetles don’t know sh*t about astronomy…

  34. Polly
    Australia
    January 25, 2013, 6:31 am

    Congrats to mr dung beetle!

  35. Andrea
    Swiss
    January 25, 2013, 6:06 am

    You might want to look up “via” in a dictionary. Like “They came to Paris via Berlin”…. I doubt very much the milky way is filled with many dung beetles except around these parts.

  36. Fred
    DC
    January 25, 2013, 5:27 am

    Wonderful! I am endlessly impressed by nature even as a scientist. I was stunned to discover that a hummingbird at my deck feeder each summer is the SAME bird that arrives year after year – coming from Central/South America and flying nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico. How he does this is beyond me.

  37. Tawny Jones
    Atlanta
    January 25, 2013, 5:24 am

    So that’s how Obama got to Chicago. Always wondered.

  38. Stuart
    California
    January 25, 2013, 5:04 am

    I find it interesting that most people couldn’t identify more than one or two stars in the night sky, but a beetle who has an infinitely less intelligence than humans can navigate the night sky with very little trouble. Maybe we as humans are on our way to losing the right to call ourselves the “dominant species” on our planet.

  39. RGR
    Japan
    January 25, 2013, 4:25 am

    Somehow it just seems that there are a few too many assumptions at work. Has the group really explored alternative possibilities for straight-line navigation, such as magnetic field or internal sense of balance/direction? Maybe the “hat” doesn’t just shield the source of light–it may be a heck of an irritant, so invasive than it renders conclusions based on it very suspect.

    But, on the other hand, it does make sense that anything that “sees” using light would navigate in relation to prominent sources of light.

  40. JH
    CA
    January 25, 2013, 3:30 am

    I remember sitting by the road hitching across N Africa, watched dung beetles kicking poop across the road backwards at a furious pace. Amazing what you see waiting for a ride…

  41. nyasha
    kapama game reserve South Africa
    January 25, 2013, 3:29 am

    the reseach is true.i have been observing these insects after reading their reseach, and i found out that they really move in a line following the milky way

  42. JT Refi
    January 25, 2013, 3:23 am

    What a bunch of crap.

  43. Kate
    Seattle, Washington
    January 25, 2013, 3:09 am

    Way cool, thanks for all the information and fun discoveries! It is wonderful for me to have the privilege of learning more about our buggie brethren! Thank you for taking the time to study and share with us, what a great use of time :)

  44. John Vorwald
    United States
    January 25, 2013, 3:02 am

    Maybe we are looking in the wrong direction for exterrestrial life, they are already here.

  45. NBJ
    January 25, 2013, 2:58 am

    Could the beetle’s hats have thrown off their sense of direction or interfered in some way?

  46. NBJ
    January 25, 2013, 2:51 am

    Maybe I didn’t read the article fully; but, instead of the hats on the beetles, why not let them work inside a closed room. Also, how do they navigate on cloudy nights? Wouldn’t observing them on a cloudy night or indoors make more sense than making tiny bug hats?

  47. Vincent Granville
    January 25, 2013, 2:46 am

    Another fake story.

  48. Tim L
    Southern California
    January 25, 2013, 2:37 am

    Thank you for Eric your study. However, I have a couple concerns with that there may be other possibilities to answer how the beetles move in a straight line.

    The beetles could very well be using any available light, even ambient light. Perhaps their eyesight can see incredibly well in almost total-darkness. Rather than putting covers over their heads (which the covers themselves may impact their straight-line walking anyway — try having a relatively heavy cover on your head and walking in a straight line).

    Also, why not turn off all the lights to the planetarium. Then you’d be able to narrow it down to the milky way without having the covers themselves be an influence.

    Or it could just be that the beetles see enough light from the stars alone and they don’t need the additional light of the Milky Way. Perhaps try having a very minimal amount of light in the planetarium (similar to starlight but not as bright as the Milky Way) and see if they can still walk in a straight line.

  49. Jaegs
    Oregon
    January 25, 2013, 1:12 am

    This only proves that dung beetles do not like wearing cardboard hats.

  50. Dassanayake Pannila
    Sri Lanka
    January 25, 2013, 12:34 am

    A good piece of work. However, as the Greek saying, ” Man (human) is the measure of everything” why does the explanation be limited to the “visibility” only? Couldn’t there be other signals such as light not visible to humans or magnetic signals being used instead? How else could operate under bushes?

  51. VICTOR
    SFO
    January 25, 2013, 12:27 am

    Guys have you tried slowly rotating the night sky ( the dome of the planetarium) so that they trace the same curved path instead of straight line???
    Putting hats and covering heads, funny.

  52. lori
    United States
    January 25, 2013, 12:24 am

    In the social structure-the male is the hunter and gatherer? Hunting for the dung pile he navigates via the stars where he gathers a female either at site or on the way and gathers her in unison making balls of consumption delight together they traverse a starlight distance away to bury their stockpile for baby beetle offspring to come? Only single dung beetles get caught in the sun?

  53. Peter M
    San Francisco, CA
    January 24, 2013, 11:49 pm

    i wonder if the ancient Egyptians had made this connection?

  54. Oneye
    Milky Way
    January 24, 2013, 11:27 pm

    Years ago I spoke to a Dung Beetle one night, he referred to it as the “Dung Way”.

  55. Stinky Butt
    SF
    January 24, 2013, 11:10 pm

    Shiiiiitttt

  56. Mary Fay
    Florida
    January 24, 2013, 11:04 pm

    I love the beetle hats! And it was is nice of the researchers to get involved in the discussion.

    I just have one question. What if there are dung heaps all over the place? Do they ricochet into trouble, or are they aware of other dung heaps and avoid them. I’m not that familiar with dung, but I would love to know if this has been looked at since it adds another level of navigation – at least to me, but then I don’t know much about it.

  57. Ridahoan
    January 24, 2013, 10:51 pm

    I’ve read studies that pigeons can navigate by stars, if not the Milky Way per se.

  58. mirahsan2
    January 24, 2013, 10:49 pm

    I remember hearing something about how their was an experiment on the ISS where NASA tried to breed fish. And well it didn’t go so well…do you think humans also tried to have children? What I’m trying to get to is maybe the Earth itself has more to do with us than we think. Not spiritually but I think we are more connected to the cosmos than just bio-organisms on a big rock…hmmmm.

  59. JJ Jettfow
    Canada
    January 24, 2013, 10:49 pm

    Lars
    “@Bill, I propose we put cardboard hats on Congressmen and see how their behavior changes.”

    You mean as opposed to the cardboard boxes they have completely over their heads now?

  60. R. Greenwald
    Niagara Falls
    January 24, 2013, 10:29 pm

    A very sophisticated way of directional movement. Consider the possibilities of other animals using the stars to navigate at night.

  61. Robert Dawson
    January 24, 2013, 10:08 pm

    The next test, I suppose, would be to project a slowly rotating image of the Milky Way and see if the beetles move in circles – and the same using (real or random) starfields.

    If there’s time after that you could try dumbing the explanation down until certain posters can understand it… but given the odds of success, I’d say wash your dog first.

  62. Joel
    Thailand
    January 24, 2013, 10:08 pm

    Really? First species in the whole animal kingdom known to navigate by stars? Can’t think of any other species in the animal kingdom that has navigated by sea or by land using stars for guidance? I know it’s picky, but still… let’s not forget ourselves :)

  63. Virgilio
    Chicago
    January 24, 2013, 9:54 pm

    Hmm, it is interesting to me that the dung beetle is so often depicted in ancient Egyptian art with a celestial role. I wonder if they knew something we didn’t know? Call Giorgio !

  64. MadCat
    Huntsville, AL.
    January 24, 2013, 9:51 pm

    Very cool research. I had never heard of a dung beetle until a year ago visiting my sister in N. Florida. She has 10 acres of wooded land, and we were camping out. I came across one in the morning and asked. She told me what it was, and then we watched and videotaped him rolling his ball for a bit. Found it fascinating. We kept track of his progress for about 20 minutes. Was amazed how far he travelled. I just LOVE spiders, bugs etc… Keep up the research. P.S. EINSTEIN, that was HILARIOUS!

  65. Anindya Nur Lathiva
    Indonesia
    January 24, 2013, 9:38 pm

    Those are amazing. Very nice. Those knowledges can help me a lot for collecting. Thanks..

  66. Keith Alan Fisher
    United States
    January 24, 2013, 8:35 pm

    Who’s calling this science? Why do you need cardboard boxes on beetles heads in a planetarium? Turn the lights off? DOH? Can dung beetles navigate on cloudy nights? Days? The problem with “science” today is there are too many “legitimate” journals begging for papers to publish. This research is rubbish. But no worries, no different than what any of your colleagues are up to. It’s all DUNG!

  67. Don V
    USA
    January 24, 2013, 8:27 pm

    As a young boy, I used to play with dung beetles near the southern edge of the Sahara. It turns out that if you take ordinary thread, make a noose, and tighten it so that it slips into the crack just in front of their wing covering, they react by opening up their wings and flying! You can just real out the thread and voila! instant kite! Hours and hours of fun! They fly right towards the nearest pile of sh_t, unless the wind is blowing. In that case they fly up-wind towards the nearest pile of sh_t. Even as an 11 yr old, I knew that they had some kind of “nose” or chemical sensor for something in that sh_t. I never paid much attention to how straight a line was that they rolled it in, but it would seem that the gradient caused by simple dilution of that odor, would cause them to roll down the gradient to “get away”. If dung beetles are known to be attracted to dung, how did you isolate their dung “sensor” to eliminate it as a variable?

  68. Christopher Booth
    /home
    January 24, 2013, 7:03 pm

    Sigh. Please be precise. The quote-miners will follow. This is the first-known example of this. We do NOT know that they are the only ones, or that they were the _first_.

    • Christine Dell'Amore
      January 24, 2013, 9:07 pm

      Thanks, I think that it made sense as is, but I added “known” to be unquestionably clear!

  69. John
    D.C.
    January 24, 2013, 4:37 pm

    Not a “first” — animals have been doing for awhile. Just first time some clever researchers discovered it.

    • Christine Dell'Amore
      January 24, 2013, 9:08 pm

      Thanks John. I made it “first known.”

  70. John S
    Newcastle, California
    January 24, 2013, 3:52 pm

    The dung beetles don’t “navigate” at all; they use visual cues to propagate a straight line in a random direction. The most interesting experiment in the planetarium would be to create pseudo-skies for the night with distinct but false patterns of stars and see if the beetles were still able to use these as reference patterns to preserve their straight-line activities.

  71. Lars
    January 24, 2013, 3:19 pm

    @Bill, I propose we put cardboard hats on Congressmen and see how their behavior changes.

  72. Eric Warrant
    Lund, Sweden
    January 24, 2013, 3:05 pm

    Thanks everyone for the kind comments about our research, although its hard to take credit for something that has clearly existed for millions of years! When working with insects we never ceased to be amazed (and humbled) by their incredible abilities, despite their tiny bodies and brains (can you imagine – the smallest bees are only 0.3 mm long and have all the same abilities (i.e. they can see, smell, feel, fly, walk etc etc) as a bee several orders of magnitude larger!).

    Frank is quite right. The beetles are not able to discern any but the brightest of stars, but the bright stripe of light forming the Milky Way (which we also see) is easily visible. And they are simply able to orient in any direction relative to this stripe. Its not particularly remarkable, although we know of no other animal (yet) that does this. Its likely to be be widespread though. As Dean said, the beetles are not the first animals known to navigate via the stars. Birds, seals and of course humans all use the constellations of stars to navigate. But the beetles are the first animals known to use the Milky Way (necessary in their case because they can’t discern constellations). And as Dean also points out this works only for a while – the Milky Way is seldom visible for more than a couple of hours a night since the earth rotates away from it. So the Milky Way is at best a temporary help for all-night navigators like birds or moths. But for dung beetles (which at most roll for a some tens of minutes before finding a burial site for their ball) the Milky Way is perfect.

    The Milky way is also probably only a “last resort” cue – if the moon is present then beetles tend to navigate using the moon’s disc and the faint pattern of polarised light formed around it. We already know that this is the case from previous studies. Interestingly, we also know from our previous work that the beetles completely ignore terrestrial landmarks (like a distant tree or mountain top). And Mike is right – in the planetarium there is no polarised light (which he rightly states is produced by scattering of sunlight reflected from the moon’s disc). Our experiments in the planetarium were thus not confounded by this type of light.

    Many thanks again for your interest in our work. We hope that you, like us, are inspired by the amazing things that other animals – even very small ones – of capable of.

    Warm regards

    Eric Warrant
    Lund, Sweden

  73. Frank Reed
    Conanicut Island
    January 24, 2013, 2:11 pm

    Mike, according to the article, their FIRST guess was that the dung beetles used polarized moonlight similar to polarized sunlight (which is caused by scattering off air molecules so it doesn’t have anything to do with the Moon’s light being reflected ). Considering that the polarized, scattered light from the Moon is many, many orders of magnitude fainter than sunlight, this was not a great guess in the first place. Their SECOND hypothesis was that the glowing band of the Milky Way provided a reference. This isn’t some amazing form of celestial navigation (which I teach, btw), the beetles are just aligning themselves to the most prominent visible light feature in the sky. They’re not using the Milky Way to go to a specific place or to travel in a specific direction (e.g. north or south); they’re just using it to maintain a constant heading so that they go in a straight line as quickly as possible away from the dung heap. That’s the claim here, at least. This method of orientation would break down after a couple of hours (shifting on average 15 degrees per hour), but I doubt dung beetles travel for more than an hour. In any case, treat all this with a heavy dose of skepticism: distinguishing simple cues from from more involved hypotheses like this one is very difficult to do and also very difficult to publicize.

  74. ross
    arizona
    January 24, 2013, 2:08 pm

    pretty cool, could these insects been used to clean waste treatment plants? the way some “oil-eating” bacteria are used to clean oil spills?

  75. I, empath
    Delaware Valley, USA
    January 24, 2013, 1:58 pm

    I am humbled…again.

  76. Connie Jennings
    January 24, 2013, 1:50 pm

    Derp, didn’t read the fine print – that is their hat in the pic.

  77. Connie Jennings
    United States
    January 24, 2013, 1:48 pm

    I want pics of the beetles with their little cardboard hats. This is really cool!

  78. Mike
    USA
    January 24, 2013, 1:41 pm

    Really? Ok wait. They move by detecting a symetrical pattern of polarized light patterns created by the sun. Ok, got it. The moon produces a much weaker polarized light pattern. Ok, probably because it’s reflected light instead of light produced by its source… in this case the sun. Riddle me this Batman… HOW ARE SYMETRICAL PATTERNS OF POLARIZED LIGHT PRODUCED IN A PLANETARIUM???? Its a projected IMAGE of stars on an overhead screen! And would be almost infinately weaker than even that of the moon.

  79. Dean
    Texas
    January 24, 2013, 1:19 pm

    Interesting research, but beetles are not the only creatures to navigate by the stars. Ornithologists have know for some time that birds migrate according to the stars..and they discovered that using the same planetarium approach that the beetle researchers did.

  80. lidia maurette
    caba,argentina
    January 24, 2013, 1:14 pm

    it,s a wonderfull study,keep going

  81. EINSTEIN
    January 24, 2013, 1:08 pm

    Dung beetles built Stonehenge!

  82. Bill
    January 24, 2013, 1:02 pm

    Exactly like the behavior of Congress.