Dung beetles navigate by starlight
January 25, 2013By Faye Flam
The image of the dung beetle just skyrocketed thanks to some scientists from Sweden who wanted to understand how these insects roll balls of dung in surprisingly straight lines in the dark. So they designed little hats to see if the beetles were using the night sky. What the researchers found was the first known use of celestial navigation among insects.
Their results, published in the journal Current Biology, got press here and there. This story from The Economist was my favorite.
...a team working in South Africa led by Eric Warrant and Marie Dacke, of Lund University in Sweden, designed an intriguing experiment. They made caps for 19 dung beetles. Ten wore caps made of cardboard to prevent them seeing the sky and, as a control, nine wore caps made of transparent plastic. The beetles and their dung balls were then released in the centre of a circular arena made of flattened sand and enclosed by a featureless circular wall. As the beetles rolled away under a moonless night sky they were filmed by infra-red cameras.
The team found that the beetles prevented from seeing the sky by their caps had path lengths that averaged 476.7cm, much longer than the average of 143.4cm travelled by the beetles wearing clear hats.
Perhaps we should consider changing their name to navigator beetle. That would be a big image upgrade.