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Creature Feature - Dung Beetle

No insect rose to such high eminence in the ancient halls of Egyptian religion as Scarabaeus sacer, the sacred scarab. The Egyptians believed that a cosmic scarab, a type of dung beetle, rolled the golden orb of the sun across the sky towards the west during the day and then trundled it through the underworld at night, attending to any necessary repairs and maintenance along the way. When the sun popped up in the east each morning, it was consequently as good as new. By David Muirhead

The connection between celestial mechanics and a small beetle rolling a pile of dung about is not so apparent to the modern mind. However, before pooh-poohing the idea, it is as well to note that painstaking and excruciatingly precise research has revealed that there is indeed a connection of sorts. Dung beetles apparently man-age to roll their ball in a straight line by orientating themselves relative to the sun by day and the Milky Way by night. They need to keep to the straight and narrow in order to make a fast getaway; rolling a dung ball around aimlessly is an open invitation to other beetles to try and steal it, and none of them wants that to happen.

Where there’s muck there’s money, so to speak, and there are hundreds of different species of beetles which make an honest living harvesting dung and a disreputable few who make a habit of stealing from others. They all prefer it fresh, and the drop-pings of herbivores and omnivores are especially preferred, having the best mix of nutrients. Hyena drop-pings, which are hard, white and mainly composed of calcium, can be safely ignored. Elephants provide a colossal bonanza and an especially large deposit quickly attracts hundreds and sometimes thousands of beetles within a matter of minutes.

Not all dung beetles go through the laborious business of making a ball. Some simply dine al fresco while others, of the genus Onitis, burrow a tunnel into the earth below or very near the dung pile, excavating an ample chamber at the end of it. They then selectively choose the most appetising items from the steaming pile above to stock their larder, just like you would presumably do if a supermarket fell on your head.

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