Star-struck: Dung beetles plot their course by milky way at night and by the sun during the day

2013-01-25 00:00

CAPE TOWN — Dung beetles use the sun and stars to help them roll their balls of dung as quickly as possible in a straight line.

Wits entymologist Professor Marcus Byrne explains that the insects are capable of using the Milky Way to orientate themselves at night. By day they use the sun, and in cloudy weather they can see polarised light, which humans cannot.

While doing fieldwork at Vryburg in the North West, Byrne wondered if the insects needed to see the starlight in order to navigate.

To test this, he placed tiny hats over their heads, secured with masking tape. “We made sure that no light got through. The dung beetles started to walk in circles. With transparent hats, they moved in a straight line again,” he says.

As long as dung beetles are moving in a straight line, they know they are moving away from the dung pile, where their rivals are scurrying around collecting their own loads.

Byrne says not all dung beetles roll dung balls. Only about 10% of the species in Africa do it, and only a few work at night.

It is possible that other insects use star- and sunlight for orientation.

“We just don’t know. It is easy to do research with dung beetles, because they are goal-oriented. They are really good insects to work with,” Byrne says.

He has previously shown how dung beetles use the wet dung to cool their forefeet and heads when it gets too hot.

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