Encounter: The Dung Beetle’s Crappy Life

For the dung beetle, crap doesn’t just happen. It’s very happening!

The dung pat is attacked and rolled into balls. Note that a tunnel has already been dug

Nature works in cycles. What is created must be consumed, only to be created again. What arrives must leave only to return. What rises must ebb, only to rise again. 

The Dung Beetle we encountered at Agumbe is nature’s waste management agency. It plays a role similar to that of vultures in cleaning up rotting flesh. The Dung Beetle’s role, though it may seem unpleasant to us, is a significant one and may have been the reason why the Scarab figured prominently in ancient Egyptian lore. Whether the dung comes from an elephant, gaur or domesticated cattle, the Beetles work fervently to break it down. While the dung of omnivores does show up on the menu of a Dung Beetle Bistro, the creature’s preference is for herbivore dung.

The beetle changes direction and rolls the dung into the tunnel
There are more than 5,000 species of Dung Beetle and they are found across continents. However, they can be categorised into three groups based on how they carry out their functions. First, there are the rollers – beetles of this kind are usually the first to arrive at the scene of the dropping and set to work rolling the dung into a ball. This ball, while serving as a source of food, is also the chamber where the brood is placed. The rollers typically roll the ball away from the scene of the dropping. It is consumed by the beetle’s larva when the egg laid inside it hatches. The rollers leave as the dung starts to dry up. Then there is the tunneler, the second kind of Dung Beetle that pulls out chunks of dung only to bury them underground. The third kind is the dweller, which thrives on the dung pat while making its home in it. 

These Dung Beetles may approach the dung differently, the work they do might come across as appalling, and the conditions under which they work may appear obnoxious and it is not surprising that these fascinating creatures are frowned upon by humankind with disgust. Show a dung beetle to a city-slicker and she’ll go: Ewwww, gross! But you might change your view if I tell you that a dung beetle does far more good to the environment than any other creature you might know of.

Work done, and ready to enter the tunnel
First, dung beetles clean up dung from the feeding grounds of herbivores, effectively increasing their foraging expanse. Further, they help release nitrogen, which might otherwise have been lost to the atmosphere, into the soil by burying chunks of dung in it. Dung is a habitat for a variety of parasites and Dung Beetles help in reducing the density of these pests and parasites by effective reducing their habitat. 
The Dung Beetle is nature’s cleanup crew, and a classic reminder (to all who think lowly of it) of how every kind of flora or fauna, no matter how seemingly insignificant, has a role to play in maintaining ecological balance.
Now, do you envy the Dung Beetle’s crappy life?

Before you go, watch a video of this dung beetle at work. Don’t miss how it changes direction like a tiny earthmover.

Text and Photographs by Anand Yegnaswami 
Video by Bijoy Venugopal 
Read more Agumbe Diaries



  • Andy

    Andy grew up watching nature documentaries. He indulges in reading and travelling to feed his interest in nature, history and culture. He is easily thrilled by trivia, anecdotes and conversations. Writing lets him bring his passions together. In his day job, Andy defines cloud solutions and, in his spare time, he builds castles in the air about his next trip to an exotic destination, settling in the end for something unobtrusive and amenable to his budget.

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