The Dance of the Dung Beetles
Posted by Richard Conniff on January 25, 2012
After they have gathered a ball of dung, but before they wheel it away from the dung heap, dung beetles always climb on top and spin around in a little dance. It looks like a moment of triumphant celebration, and one we can all identify with as we slog through our version of the same old shit. But it turns out they are actually just taking a compass reading.
Here’s the report from Science Daily:
Dung beetle dance provides crucial orientation cues: Beetles climb on top of ball, rotate to get their bearings to maintain straight trajectory.
The dung beetle dance, performed as the beetle moves away from the dung pile with his precious dung ball, is a mechanism to maintain the desired straight-line departure from the pile, according to a study published in the Jan. 18 issue of the online journal PLoS ONE.
The purpose of this dance, in which the beetle climbs to the top of the ball and rotates, had previously been unknown, so the authors of the PLoS ONE study, led by Emily Baird of Lund University in Sweden, investigated the circumstances that cause the beetle to dance.
They found that the beetles are most likely to perform the dance before moving away from the pile, upon encountering an obstacle, or if they have lost control of the ball, suggesting that the behavior is crucial for keeping the ball moving in a straight line.
Such direct, efficient navigation allows the beetle to quickly move away from the intense competition from other beetles at the dung pile. The authors propose that the beetles store a compass reading of celestial cues during the dance, which they then use to guide their straight-line trajectory.
So it’s all about geography, not poetry. Even so, musicians, rise up! We need a modern-day Bela Bartok or Edvard Grieg to celebrate this particular peasant dance.
Emily Baird, Marcus J. Byrne, Jochen Smolka, Eric J. Warrant, Marie Dacke. The Dung Beetle Dance: An Orientation Behaviour? PLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (1): e30211 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0030211