dung beetles and the stars


We’ve known for a while that dung beetles always roll straight, without doubling back. “If they don’t roll straight,” said Eric Warrant, a co-author of Dung Beetles Use the Milky Way for Orientation, “something is wrong.” Yet how beetles manage this, even when they hit a road bump or get temporarily off course, was, until recently, a mystery. The researchers eventually found that dung beetles orient themselves by day with sunlight and by following moonbeams at night. But what continued to intrigue Dr. Dacke, the study’s leader, and her colleagues was how the dung beetles stay their course even on dark nights when the moon is new. What they found was that the earthbound dung beetle can also steer by the stars, using star clusters or the band of the Milky Way as a compass. Our tiniest astronomers, dung beetles are the only known insect — and the only known animal save seals, birds, and people — to navigate by watching the galaxy. If most of human civilization has been designed around the avoidance of dung, the rest has been designed around the avoidance of insects. Insects with a fancy for excrement, like the dung beetle, are even more anathema than many parasites, like mosquitoes.

more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.