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Dung Beetles are "Full of It"

By Bart Wursten

Pachylomerus femuralis
Flattened Giant Dung Beetle

We all know some people are "full of it."  As a matter of fact, our planet is also full of it but, as usual, evolution has come up with a plan. That's why we have lots and lots of dung beetles—little dung beetles for the small cases and large dung beetles for the very large cases.  It comes as no surprise that the largest dung beetle deals with the largest loads.

Pachylomerus femuralis, is about as long as its scientific name, more than 5 cm, and specializes in the removal of elephant dung.  During the rainy season, when elephants largely live on enormous quantities of fresh grass, dozens of these beetles can be seen churning up a single juicy mount, rolling off chunks the size of large golf balls, and dropping them "hole-in-one" into nearby holes, dug by their mates.  Although you'll see them mostly walking head down, pushing the dung ball with their hind legs, they can actually fly.  Like all beetles, the forewings have been modified into hard shields, called elytra. These shields offer good protection for the body and the membranous hind wings, a useful development, as we shall see. 

A dung beetle ready for take off is a sight to behold and must have inspired the George Lucases of this world.  In sequence, the beetle raises itself up on its segmented legs, hinges the hard elytra upwards, spreads out the wings horizontally and then…George Lucas had to start looking elsewhere for inspiration, because after all this the dung beetle takes off without any apparent sense of direction, balance or navigation and usually, with a loud thwack, flies into the first solid object it reaches, crashes to the ground—half the time landing on its back and spending the next half hour trying to turn itself back on to its feet.  Not quite the way to win Star Wars. If dung beetles could talk, they probably would say "oops!" a lot. 


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 28, 2008 11:13 AM.

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