The dung beetle is an intriguing insect for more than one reason, but scientists have been particularly mystified by the “dance” the beetles perform while atop their balls of dung. In a recent study, a group of researchers set out to figure out what causes this unusual behavior.
It turns out that the dancing has to do with how the beetles orient themselves and determine which direction they need to go. The beetles, which transport pieces of dung by rolling them away to bury and feed their young, move in straight lines away from the dung pile in order to get it away from other dung beetles who are competing for the food source.
How do they figure out where to go while they’re running backwards pushing a ball of dung? Using celestial navigation. As part of their experiment, scientists used mirrors to change the position of the sun above the beetles and the beetles changed their course accordingly. Beetles that appear to be dancing are those that have fallen off their dung balls or need to change direction after encountering an obstacle. The “dance,” it turns out, is actually a series of rotations that help the beetle gauge the position of the sun overhead so that it can continue on its way.
In a conversation with LiveScience neuroethologist Emily Baird called the findings “exciting.” A dung beetle, said Baird, “has less than 0.0001 percent of the neurons of a human brain, yet it is able to orient along a straight line using information from the sky.”
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