The dung beetle rolling its prized ball across the road: a familiar and entertaining sight for us on safari during the wetter summer months. When the rains come to Madikwe, the dung beetles come to life. As the rains soften the soil, these little insects come out of their underground slumber (dormant phase) and arrive at the surface to target the many animal droppings left behind.
Dung beetles have, what we consider, an unappetizing diet. They are coprophagous, which means that they consume the faeces of other animals – most commonly of large herbivores, like elephants and rhino, whose dung is largely undigested, nutritious plant matter. But the beetles play a very important role in the ecosystem by recycling animal waste and returning much-needed nutrients and minerals to the soil. In addition to a food source, dung beetles use dung as a place to lay their eggs.
Incredibly, there are thousands of species of dung beetle worldwide, but they all fall into four groups, and each has a different strategy for handling dung. There are those that live and lay their eggs in a pile of dung; those that dig down below a pile; perhaps the most well-known, those that roll the dung away from a pile to bury elsewhere; and those that steal balls from the rollers. If the egg or larva were already placed inside the ball, the thief would eat it as well!
For the beetles that roll the dung, when it comes to poop, the fresher the better. Dried-out dung is not as easy to ball because it requires moisture to stick together and maintain its shape. So when there is fresh dung left behind by an herbivore, the dung beetles quickly move to the scene. The male generally rolls the ball and once it’s ready, the female comes to lay her egg inside it.
If you see one dung beetle doing the rolling and another catching a lift, this is probably a mating pair. The male will push the ball with his back legs, head-down, until the pair finds a suitable spot of soft soil. They will then work together to dig their nest here – a hole in the ground, usually about 20 to 30cm (8 to 12in) deep. The female lays a single egg inside the ball, which will eventually serve as food for the larva once it has hatched.
With more than 7 000 species of dung beetles living amongst us in the world, it is easy to understand just how important these hard-working beetles are to the environment. By removing a little dung beetle from the eco system, you would be encouraging the spread of diseases from all the faeces of many different animals.
So next time you go on a game drive and see a perfect, round ball being rolled over the road, remember to appreciate these helpful creatures just a bit more!
Words and photos by: Field Guide Wayne Lubbe