Celestial navigation has guided man around the world for several thousand years. A new study suggests it could also be guiding dung beetles.
Marie Dacke, a zoologist at Sweden's Lund University, studies the way animals navigate. In a study online this week in Current Biology, she and a team of researchers looked into the surprisingly sophisticated navigational habits of the dung beetle, finding that they too have their eyes on the skies.
Here's how it works: Dung beetles like to maintain straight lines as they run. As they're going about their beetle business, when a pile of droppings catches their eye, they roll it into a ball and, walking backward, push it somewhere safe to eat. A straight course ensures they don't return to the fierce competition back at the dung pile.
Researchers placed African ball-rolling dung beetles in a planetarium, and found they could navigate just as easily with only the Milky Way visible as with a full starlit sky. Under overcast conditions, the beetles lost their way.
Dacke's previous research has shown that dung beetles use the sun, the moon and celestial polarization patterns to keep them moving in a straight line. Yet nocturnal beetles can stay their course even on moonless nights, guided by the stars.
Birds and seals have also been known to use the stars for navigation, but this is the first time insects have been found to use them for the same purpose. It's also the first documentation of animals using the Milky Way specifically.
Dacke is currently in the process of researching why dung beetles dance on top of their poo-ball prey. Previous research has indicated that it may be a cooling method for hot days, but it may also be an orientation device.
SCARAB (DUNG) BEETLE
It is generally accepted that the sacred scarab beetle of egyptian mythology originated from the species Scarabaeus sacer, although the ancient worship of this beetle was eventually extended to all members of the scarab or dung beetle family. The scarab was personified by Khepri, a sun-god associated with resurrection and new life. The ancient egyptians believed that the scarab beetle came into being of itself from a ball of dung (the idea of self-creation). It was worshipped under the name of Khepri, which means 'he who has come into being' or 'he who came forth from the earth'. The god Khepri was associated with the creator-god Atum and was regarded as a form of the sun-god Ra. Just as the beetle pushed its ball of dung over the ground, so Khepri in the form of a scarab beetle, it was thought, rolled the solar disc across the sky each day.
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