A day in the life of a male dung beetle goes something like this: Fly to a heap of dung, sculpt a clump of it into a large ball, then roll the ball away from the pile as fast as possible. However, it turns out that the beetles, who work at night, need some sort of compass to prevent them from rolling around in circles. New research in Current Biology suggests that the insects use starlight to guide their way. Birds, seals, and humans also use starlight to navigate, but this is the first time it's been shown in an insect.The details of the study are interesting. They put the beetles in a planetarium and varied the visibility conditions and tracked how straight they traveled with their turd balls. They decided the dung beetles were using the Milky Way as a landmark in the sky to guide their travel.
The whole point of rolling dung is to impress the female beetle with provisions—i.e., excrement—for her future progeny and entice her to mate. She then lays an egg in the ball and buries it in a network of tunnels more than a meter deep, where it serves as food for the developing larvae inside.
But rolling dung balls in a straight line is also key to the male dung beetle's reproductive success. Rival males have been known to overtake a slower moving insect and claim the hard-earned treasure as their own. Competition is fiercest near the dung heap, so making a quick and efficient getaway is crucial for mating success.
The discovery that dung beetles use starlight "was an accident more than anything," explains study author Eric Warrant, professor of zoology at the Lund University in Sweden. His research group was studying how the beetles used the polarized light patterns of the moon to stay on their paths, when one moonless night they made a surprising observation—the beetles maintained straight trajectories. "Even without the moon—just with the stars—they were still able to navigate," Warrant says. "We were just flabbergasted."
Certain rituals of dung beetle mating seem to be an analogy for human ones.