Piloting Poop by Using the Stars

SCIENCE

Dung beetles are on the ball! But they take “celestial snapshots” before getting the ball rolling. (Washington Post)

How would you place in a dung beetle derby? Play our fun game to find out!

Discussion Ideas

  • The Washington Post says dung beetles are “coprophagic critters” that use celestial navigation to get the ball rolling. What does coprophagic mean?
    • Coprophages are organisms that feed on dung or feces. Those meticulous spheres of poop that dung beetles so carefully pilot will soon be dinner.
      • In addition to dung beetles, insects such as flies and termites are coprophages.
      • Few mammals are entirely coprophagic. Infant mammals such as koalas, pandas, and elephants consume the feces of their mothers to obtain gut bacteria that will allow them to digest food as an adult. Coprophagy benefits other mammals (such as rabbits and chimpanzees) by augmenting gut bacteria and providing additional vitamins.

 

  • What is celestial navigation?
    • Celestial navigation describes the process of determining an object’s position using the stars and planets as guides. Dung beetles actually use the Milky Way galaxy itself as a navigational instrument.
      • Legendary explorers used sophisticated celestial navigation techniques to map the planet in a pre-GPS world, and is still used today. There are 57 navigational stars; download this map to orient yourself. (If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, you can start more simply by locating Polaris, the current North Star.)

 

  • How did scientists determine that dung beetles use celestial navigation to get the ball rolling?

 

  • How do dung beetles use celestial navigation?
    • They dance! It’s important to know that the beetles don’t just roll a ball of dung and pilot it away. Before they get the ball rolling, they do a ridiculous little dance on top of their dung. The dance is the key.
      • When researchers “hid cues during the dance but displayed them once the ball got rolling, the beetles were disoriented. But when the cues were present during the dance and hidden during the actual journey, the beetles maintained a straight line with ease.”
        • This indicates the insects “might be creating a mental image of the position of certain celestial cues during their dance, then simply comparing that mental image to the position of the cues in the sky as they moved forward.”

 

How are these dung beetles, in the Kabwoya Wildlife Reserve on the shores of Lake Albert in Uganda, using celestial navigation in the daytime? Well, they’re using the most awesome navigational beacon there is—the sun! Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Contact is Lake Albert Safari Lodge Manager: Richard Angubo Lake Albert Safaris Ltd. info@lakealbertlodge.com +256 772 36 55 29 personal cell +256 772 221 003 lodge Owner of lodge is Bruce Martin E-mail Bruce@lakealbertlodge.com +256 753 22 1006

How are these dung beetles, in the Kabwoya Wildlife Reserve on the shores of Lake Albert in Uganda, using celestial navigation in the daytime? Well, they’re using the most awesome navigational beacon there is—the sun!
Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

 

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

Washington Post: The humble dung beetle is a master of celestial navigation

Nat Geo: Dung Beetle Derby game

(paywalled!) (extra credit!) Current Biology: A Snapshot-Based Mechanism for Celestial Orientation

One response to “Piloting Poop by Using the Stars

  1. Pingback: Piloting Poop by Using the Stars — Nat Geo Education Blog – Welcome to the World of Ekasringa Avatar!·

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