What are dung beetles?

Dung beetles are exactly what they sound like— bugs that, in one way or another, thrive in environments where dung is present. They’re incredible strong insects, known to push over 1,000 times their weight, and they live on every habitable continent on earth. Ranging in size from anywhere between a few centimeters to a few inches— there are 3 primary categories for which the over 6,000 species of dung beetles fall into: Rollers, Tunnelers, and Dwellers.

The three categories have to do with the way dung beetles utilize dung. Rollers— you guessed it— roll dung into a nearly perfectly spherical ball, away from the main dung pile. Then, they burrow it underground for their dung beetle communities to feed on and breed within, to further sustain their life cycle. Dung beetles in this category are those most typically thought of when one imagines the beetle, pushing an inhumanly perfect sphere of dung on their hind legs down dirt paths or grassy plains.

On the other hand, tunnelers, sometimes referred to as burrowers, build underground dung-fortresses from the fibrous material in herbivore dung, directly beneath the main dung pile for which the beetles are scavenging. Then, there are dwellers, dung beetles who breed and feed within the main dung pile.

One specific species of dung beetle, the African Scarabaeus zambesianus, has actually been studied for its ability to navigate by way of moonlight. What’s more, dung beetles are known for their ability to navigate by the positioning of the Milky Way— the only known insects to have this ability.


How do dung beetles contribute to environmental conservation?


Bernard DUPONT, wikimedia commons

While categorically different, many dung beetle species have been shown to be environmentally beneficial. Essentially, the role of the dung beetle is to clean up and disperse the waste of other inhabitants of their environments. By spreading dung, rollers are also spreading the seeds within that dung throughout a given landscape, thereby increasing plant growth. Additionally, they’ve been studied for their ability to limit the breeding of undesirable pests, and for their contributions to fertilization and aeration of soil.

Generally speaking, dung beetles, however uncouth an insect to discuss, play a vitally important role in the East African ecosystem. Maintaining environmental sustainability via soil fertilization and pest reduction has lead dung beetles to be labeled the unsung hero of their territories. With their presence spurring surprising ecological benefits, like a reduction in both parasitic worms in cows and the occurrence of bush flies, dung beetles contribute to the delicate balance that must be maintained in the continually threatened ecosystems of East Africa.