I think I must have bent down to tie a shoelace when I spotted the pair: they were trundling across the path valiantly manhandling this little brown ball of what looked like mud. It wasn’t mud, it was doo-doo — dung — and the pair was Mr and Mrs Dungbeetle. While (as I read up later) the gentleman did the actual shoving, leaning his spiky back legs against the ball and pushing it in reverse, the lady either hitched a ride on top of the ball (treadmilling to stay on board), or got down, and I imagine, yelled instructions and directions. Not that he needed any: dungbeetles can track their dungballs straight and true by using the sun, moon, stars and even the Milky Way to navigate!
Of course, they became my all-time favourite beetles — stout, shield-shaped and ready to take on any crap you might throw at them. The pair I met were rollers: the gentleman had rolled his ball of dung, offered it to the lady who had accepted it (with squeals of delight, I like to think) and now they were looking for a soft spot in the ground where they would bury their largesse — to eat, or to have a honeymoon on so the lady could lay an egg in it. They had to be quick and sharp because they could get robbed, which was why tracking in a straight line away from the dung heap was so important. If you tracked in a circle and got back to it, you could be robbed by other hoodlums hanging around the doo-doo. They’re strong fellas, able to shove 10 times their body weight and bury 250 times that worth of dung every night.
Apart from the rollers, there are the tunnelers and dwellers. The former simply start digging under a dung pile till it sinks into the ground, while the latter have orgies right on top of the dung heap with no qualms at all.
So why this wonderful craving? The dung of all animals contains undigested stuff — plenty of it if you are a cow or a buffalo or an elephant. While the adult beetles suck up the smelly soupy part — full of minerals and wholesome goodness — their larvae prefer the dry bits which are full of undigested foodstuff. They home in onto dungheaps, using their sense of smell and they can fly. They’ve travelled all over the world, except to Antarctica.
And we owe them big time. They clean up after cattle: each animal drops 10-12 doo-doos every day, which if left as is would attract flies by the gazillion and also nasty parasites. Basically, if it weren’t for the beetles we’d be covered with flies and eaten by worms. They turn the dung into useful nutrients in the soil. Australia would have been down under in dung, if it hadn’t imported dung beetles from Hawaii, Europe and South Africa to deal with cattle dung, which the local Aussie dungbeetles couldn’t handle (being used to marsupial dung).
Some dungballs can be big as an apple, a couple of Indian species (there are around 5,000 worldwide) covered their dungballs with clay, which dried and made us think they were old cannonballs! The ancient Egyptians, however, got it right: these were their sacred scarab beetles. The ball of dung was the earth and the beetle, the sun.
Rather cool if your other name is Tumblebug!
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher