Dung beetles: This is the way they roll

2015-11-02 21:14
Dung Beetle (Sabi Sabi)

Dung Beetle (Sabi Sabi)

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Johannesburg - New research, by the same scientists who proved that dung beetles use the Milky Way to navigate, now shows that the insect's brain is a lot more flexible than initially thought. 

"Many people think they are pre-programmed, and that it's a static programme," Marie Dacke, an associate professor from Lund University in Sweden, told News24.

"Their [brain] wiring is actually way more flexible and much more sophisticated than formally demonstrated. We have to give them much more credit."

For the last two years, Dacke, together with Professor Marcus Byrne from Wits University and other researchers have been peering into the brains of beetles.

These include beetles that are active during the day (diurnal) and those that are nocturnal to see how they use celestial cues such as the sun, the moon and the "polarisation pattern of skylight" to navigate their dung balls along straight paths across the savannah.

"The main thing we are looking at is the biological compass system and how animals find their way around," Dacke said

The "polarisation pattern" is light that we as humans cannot normally see, but dung beetles can.  

"It is almost like a hidden signal to find the direction of sun," Dacke said. 

Diurnal beetles use the sun as their main cue, and when put in night conditions, they use the moon. This is because compass neurons in the central complex of diurnal beetles’ brains are tuned only to the sun. 

Nocturnal beetles on the other hand prefer using "the polarisation pattern of skylight" as a cue, even when the moon is out. However, when placed into a day environment, they used the sun. 

Basically, this means that the compass neurons in the brains of beetles have a flexible encoding for particular celestial cues - which means that while they have a hierarchy of cues they prefer, like the sun for the day beetle, their preferences could be overtaken based on the actual condition of light.  

Read more on:    science  |  animals

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