Range:

Found on all continents except Antarctica

Habitat:

Farmland, forest, grasslands, prairies, and deserts

Three varieties of dung beetle

Dung beetles do just what their name suggests: they use the manure, or dung, of other animals in some unique ways! These interesting insects fly around in search of manure deposits, or pats, from herbivores like cows and elephants. Dung beetles come in a variety of colors, from dull and glossy black to metallic green and red. Ancient Egyptians thought very highly of the dung beetle, also known as the scarab (from their taxonomic family name, Scarabaeidae). They believed the dung beetle kept the Earth revolving like a giant ball of dung, linking the insect to Khepri, the Egyptian god of the rising sun.

Getting the job done

Scientists group dung beetles by the way the beetles make a living: rollers, tunnelers, and dwellers. Rollers form a bit of dung into a ball, roll it away, and bury it. The balls they make are either used by the female to lay her eggs in (called a brood ball) or as food for the adults to eat. Tunnelers land on a manure pat and simply dig down into the pat, burying a portion of the dung. Dwellers are content with staying on top of the dung pat to lay their eggs and raise the young.

Burrowing owls have been seen using animal poop as bait to trap dung beetles for food.
One nickname for dung beetles is tumblebugs.
One species of dung beetle in Peru eats millipedes. It is a rare example of a scavenger species turned carnivore.
Ancient Egyptians used the image of the dung beetle, or scarab, in their religious artwork and jewelry.
Dung beetles can move dung balls weighing up to 50 times the animal’s own weight.
About 75 dung beetle species are found in North America, but only about a dozen of those are significant dung buriers.

The wily dung beetle is showcased in the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey, an area that showcases modern animals with their Pleistocene era counterparts found in southern California 10,000 years ago. Dung beetles were just as important to the landscape during the Pleistocene as they are today. They tidied up after a variety of colossal herbivores like ground sloths and wooly mammoths. See if you can tell which variety is on exhibit: rollers, tunnelers, or dwellers.

So what’s so great about dung beetles? They are mighty recyclers! By burying animal dung, the beetles loosen and nourish the soil and help control fly populations. The average domestic cow drops 10 to 12 dung pats per day, and each pat can produce up to 3,000 flies within two weeks. In parts of Texas, dung beetles bury about 80 percent of cattle dung. If they didn’t, the manure would harden, plants would die, and the pastureland would be a barren, smelly landscape filled with flies!

In Australia, the native forest-dwelling dung beetles could not keep up with the tons of manure deposited by cattle in the pastures, causing a tremendous increase in the fly population. African dung beetles, which do well in open fields, were brought to Australia to help with the growing piles of poo, and today the pastureland is doing well and the fly populations are under control.

We may question their lifestyle, but it’s certain that our world would be a much smellier place without the mighty dung beetle!