10 Fascinating Facts About Dung Beetles

Interesting Behaviors and Traits of Dung Beetles

Dung beetles rolling a ball of dung.
A pair of dung beetles rolling a dung ball. Getty Images/Shem Compion

Is there anything cooler than a dung beetle pushing a ball of poo? We think not. But lest you disagree, please consider these 10 fascinating facts about dung beetles.

1. Dung beetles eat poop.

Dung beetles are coprophagous insects, meaning they eat excrement of other organisms. Although not all dung beetles eat poop exclusively, they all eat feces at some point in their life. Most prefer to feed on herbivore droppings, which are largely undigested plant matter, rather than carnivore waste, which holds very little nutritional value for insects (and really, who could blame them for that preference).

Recent research at the University of Nebraska suggests dung beetles may be most attracted to omnivore excrement, since it provides both nutritional value and the right amount of odor to make it easy to find.

2. Not all dung beetles roll their poop.

When you think of a dung beetle, you probably picture a beetle pushing a ball of poop along the ground. But some dung beetles don’t bother rolling neat little dung balls at all. Instead, these coprophages stay close to their fecal finds. Aphodian dung beetles (subfamily Aphodiinae) simply live within the dung they find, often cow patties, rather than investing energy in moving it. The earth-boring dung beetles (family Geotrupidae) typically tunnel below the dung pile, making a burrow which can then be easily provisioned with poop.

3. Dung beetles provision their nests with poop for their offspring.

When dung beetles do carry or roll the dung away, they do so primarily to feed their young.

Dung beetle nests are provisioned with poop, and the female usually deposits each individual egg in its own tiny dung sausage. When the larvae emerge, they are well-supplied with food, enabling them to complete their development within the safe environment of the nest.

4. Many dung beetles are good parents.

Dung beetles are one of the few groups of insects that exhibit parental care for their young.

In most cases, child rearing responsibilities fall on the mother (surprise!), who constructs the nest and provisions it with food for her young. But in certain species, both parents share child care duties to some degree. In the Copris and Ontophagus dung beetles, the male and female work together to dig their nests. Certain Cephalodesmius dung beetles even mate for life.

5. Most dung beetles are particular about the poop they’ll eat.

For most dung beetles, not just any poop will do. Many dung beetles specialize on the dung of particular animals, or types of animals, and simply will not touch the poo of other critters. Australians learned this lesson the hard way, when the outback was nearly buried in cattle dung. Two hundred years ago, settlers introduced horses, sheep, and cattle to Australia, all grazing animals that were new to the native dung beetles. The Australian dung beetles were raised on poop from Down Under, like kangaroo poo, and refused to clean up after the exotic newcomers. Around 1960, Australia imported exotic dung beetles that were adapted to eating cattle dung, and things got back to normal. Phew.

6. Dung beetles are really good at finding poop.

When it comes to poop, the fresher the better (at least from the dung beetle's perspective).

Once a dung patty has dried out, it’s less palatable to even the most dedicated poop eater. So dung beetles move quickly when an herbivore drops a gift in the pasture. One scientist observed 4,000 dung beetles on a fresh pile of elephant scat within 15 minutes after it hit the ground, and shortly thereafter, they were joined by an additional 12,000 dung beetles. With that kind of competition, you have to move quick if you’re a dung beetle.

7. Dung beetles navigate using the Milky Way.

With so many dung beetles vying for the same pile of poop, a beetle needs to make a quick getaway once he’s rolled his dung ball. But it’s not easy to roll a ball of poop in a straight line, especially when you’re pushing your ball from behind using your hind legs. So the first thing the dung beetle does is climb atop his sphere and orient himself.

Scientists had long observed dung beetles dancing on their poo balls, and suspected they were looking for cues to help them navigate. New research confirmed that at least one species of African dung beetle, Scarabaeus satyrus, uses the Milky Way as a guide to steering its dung ball home. The researchers placed tiny hats on the dung beetles, effectively blocking their view of the heavens, and found the dung beetles could only wander aimlessly without being able to see the stars.

8. Dung beetles use their poop balls to cool off.

Have you ever walked barefoot across a sandy beach on a scorching hot summer day? If so, you probably did your share of hopping, skipping, and running to avoid painful burns to your feet. Since dung beetles often live in similarly hot, sunny places, scientists wondered if they, too, worried about burning their tootsies. A recent study showed that dung beetles use their dung balls to cool off. Around noon, when the sun is at its peak, dung beetles will routinely climb atop their dung balls to give their feet a break from the hot ground. The scientists tried putting tiny, silicone booties on the dung beetles, and they discovered the beetles wearing shoes would take fewer breaks and push their dung balls longer than the beetles that were barefoot. Thermal imaging also showed that the dung balls were measurably cooler than the surrounding environment, probably because of their moisture content.

9. Some dung beetles are surprisingly strong.

Even a small ball of fresh dung can be hefty to push, weighing 50 times the weight of the determined dung beetle. Male dung beetles need exceptional strength, not just for pushing dung balls but also for fending off male competitors. The individual strength record goes to a male Onthphagus taurus dung beetle, which pulled a load equivalent to 1,141 times its own body weight. How does this compare to human feats of strength? This would be like a 150 lb. person pulling 80 tons!

10. Millions of years ago, ancient dung beetles cleaned up after prehistoric giants.

Because they lack bones, insects rarely show up in the fossil record.

But we do know that dung beetles existed around 30 million years ago, because paleontologists have found fossilized dung balls the size of tennis balls from that time period. Prehistoric dung beetles collected the poop of South America’s megafauna: car-sized armadillos, sloths taller than modern houses, and a peculiar long-necked herbivore called Macrauchenia.