NPR diversions: Why dung beetles dance

Jan 19, 2012
Originally published on January 19, 2012 11:18 am

Finally! Here's a solution for lost motorists who refuse to stop and ask for directions - imitate a dung beetle.

There's a reason why dung beetles shake it on top of their dung balls: they're apparently trying to find out where they're going. Researcher Emily Baird tested her theory on dung beetles at a South African farm and learned the bugs gyrate when they're off-course.

Baird and her colleagues watched adult dung beetles gather fresh balls of cow poop and hastily roll them away. She notes before racing off, beetles first do a little bob and weave on top of their dung balls before zooming off in a straight line. The researchers theorize during the initial dance, the insects are trying to chart their paths; a fast getaway is essential because the beetles steal dung balls from each other at the main dung pile. Beetles want the speediest escape route, which is a direct line.

The researchers didn't stop there: they waited for the dung beetles to roll away their balls and then dropped plastic tubes and other roadblocks in front of them. The beetles danced again, notes Scientific American. Baird and her colleagues then tried pushing the beetles off-course without using roadblocks. That meant the insects were no longer traveling on the direct line escape route they'd first charted. Here again, they climbed on top of their dung balls and danced, apparently trying to reorient themselves.

That's a lot of dancing. Baird says the gyrations are an orientation mechanism that dung beetles use to choose a path and then to find a way to get back on track if they're lost or mislay their cars dung balls.

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