January 23rd of 2022

©Photography byEdward Smith

Incredibly small and only seen for a few months a year, dung beetles are exceptionally important ecologically as together these organisms can do more than man has been able to do since our very existence. Dung beetles have the ability to bury more than a metric ton of dung per hectare per year. In the Kruger National Park this is equivalent to over 2 billion tons of dung buried each year! Take a moment and imagine how labour intensive this job might actually be… Not only is this already an incredible task performed by these tiny creatures but keep in mind the trillions of parasite eggs they bury along with it…

The world is home to over 7000 different dung beetle species where South Africa provides a safe place to about 780 of them.

Most species fly to fresh dung piles before they start tunneling under the surface where they eat the dung in a habit called coprophagy and knead small dung balls into which they lay their eggs. Some dung balls can weigh between 50 - 80 times the weight of an individual dung beetle. Up to 72% of all dung beetles prefer dung (from a herbivore) and feces (from an omnivore) over carnivore scat, this making perfect sense as prey species outnumber predators by a considerable amount.

Dung beetles are divided into 4 different groups depending on their lifestyle and what they do with the dung they collect.
Endocoprids - also known as “dwellers”, remain inside the pile of dung out of sight of lurking predators.
Telecoprids - or “rollers” are responsible for making dung balls which are then rolled away from the original dung pile site, to either be consumed or ultimately become food for the egg that later hatches inside the ball.
Paracoprids - known as “tunnellers” prefer to stay out of sight and will therefore bury dung directly underneath the pile of dung as their larval food supply.
Cleptocoprids - dung ball stealing individuals that prefer to fight for pre-rolled dung balls in which to lay their own eggs.

The most conspicuous are the telecoprids (rollers). They may roll dung balls for different reasons and both the size and shape could give you an idea what the ball may be used for. A breeding pair of dung beetles may roll a ball of dung together to eat, these are known as “food balls”. Males may also roll “nuptial balls” for a female into a hole used for mating after which the two will consume the ball together. Lastly a “brood ball” is rolled as a larder for the beetle’s larvae which may take the shape of a pear after a female has deposited a single egg.Up to 60 individual eggs can be laid by a female in a season meaning that a lone male could be responsible for providing a dung ball for each egg.

Dung beetles are astute navigators thanks to their mutualistic symbiotic relationships with microscopic organisms allowing them to find dung piles in a matter of seconds. Once a pile of dung is found it will be fully colonised in a matter of minutes and almost completely removed within a day. A single elephant dung pile may contain as many as 16 000 different dung beetles so we therefore urge you to take care of our very “shi**y” but extremely important dung removing beetles.

Edward Smith