Why Dung Beetles Dance on Poop: They’re Mapping the Sky

Image: Basil el Jundi/Lund University
Image: Basil el Jundi/Lund University
Out on the African savannah, where dung beetles live, every piece of poop is like a “treasure” packed with nutrients that must be protected at all costs, biologist Basil el Jundi, of Lund University in Sweden, told me.


The beetles “have to ensure that others aren’t going to steal it,” so they form a piece of poop into a ball and roll it as quickly as possible away from the dung pile, el Jundi said. But, before doing so, they stop for a moment and dance on top of the ball.

It seems like a funny thing to do, when you’re in a hurry. Researchers never really understood why dung beetles would stop and do this dance, but now they have an idea.

In a new paper in Current Biology, el Jundi and co-authors from Sweden and South Africa suggest that dung beetles, who are known to navigate by the light of the Milky Way, are taking a “snapshot” of the sky when they dance—a mental note of cosmic bodies like the sun and stars, that will help them roll their ball in a straight line, and get away from others who might want a piece of their dung as quickly as possible.

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