Dung Ho! Dung Beetles in South Africa
On a recent trip to South Africa, the number one thing people were talking about was the upcoming World Cup Soccer Tournament about to be played there. Number two (pardon the pun) was dung. More specifically, elephant dung and the Dung Beetle.
Never would I have imagined spending so much time talking about and thinking about dung. When you think of Africa you think of the large magnificent creatures that inhabit the plains. After all who travels half way around the world to look at an insect? And yet, the little Dung Beetle is big news over there.
It seems that the Flightless Dung Beetles were very nearly wiped out throughout much of Africa, and today are found primarily in the Addo region of the Eastern Cape of South Africa where they are being reintroduced. Their habitat is constantly under threat from agricultural development and human encroachment as well as the falling numbers of the large animals it is dependent on. Climate, a limited breeding cycle and its own genetics (being flightless limits its range) also play a role in diminished numbers of the beetles. There is an ongoing movement (pardon again) to reintroduce them and ensure their continued survival. Why all this fuss about a lowly Dung Beetle? It’s a simple matter of Mother Nature and mathematics. Nature is fascinating and wise and everything has a purpose. The elephant’s job is to control the growth of forests. In one day a single elephant can consume 440 pounds of foliage to keep its adult figure and maintain a body weight of up to 10,000 pounds. This diet can be comprised of over 50 varieties of grasses, shrubs and trees -a grand buffet if you will. But elephants are unable to digest cellulose, the main material of plants, so more than 60% of what they eat is not absorbed. Of course, what goes in must come out. And it does, everywhere and in large amounts. Because elephant dung is also comprised of the seeds of grasses and fruits it consumes, it also helps with the propagation of their own food source- truly a circle of life! Dumbo may not seem so dumb to you any longer, eh?
Enter the Dung Beetle, whose sole job is to convert piles of dung into smaller dung balls. Slowly they roll the dung into spheres that they will then use as nests. After they transport their new nests into a quiet spot, the female beetles lay eggs in the dung balls. As the eggs mature and turn into larvae, the larvae then eat the dung balls. An actual “eating you out of house and home” if you will. Three to four months later, they eventually hatch into more Dung Beetles. More Dung Beetles, less dung everywhere. One Dung Beetle can remove more than its body weight in dung per day. That may not seem like a lot, but in comparison, if we humans were to consume an equivalent amount, we would have to eat over 300 quarter pounders, with cheese- every single day. Just imagine your cholesterol numbers then! After the larvae hatch, this ball, now rich in vegetation from the elephant’s dinner, is eventually buried, returning valuable nutrients to the soil.
Unfortunately for the Dung Beetles they themselves also are food for smaller carnivores such as meerkats, lizards and a whole host of birds. There is even a species of plant which grows on the root of Acacia trees that preys on Dung Beetles. When it rains, the Hydnora sends up enormous red flowers that have a smell similar to feces. How tricky. The flowers have a well at the center and slippery petals that prevent the beetle from crawling back out and the beetle eventually dies. The decomposing insects provide nutrients for the plant, which in turn also dies, leaving the underground portion of the plant to thrive and regenerate. Humans, as expected, are also predators- and not just by stepping on them. Chinese traditional medicine uses dried Dung Beetles to treat many maladies. Deforestation diminishes food for the elephants and the cycle spirals down to the Dung Beetle.
Fortunately, locals have thus far been successful in their reintroduction efforts. They still have a long way to go. For me, I remain amazed at the perfectly symbiotic relationship between an animal that weighs 5 tons and stands 11 feet tall at maturity and its partner in nature that measures 30mm in length and find myself rooting for both.