The Dung Beetle: Fun Facts and Benefits for Ecosystems

Dung beetles are notoriously associated with their fun behavior of rolling balls of feces and even fighting over this precious animal product. Dung is indeed the primary resource for these beetles. They use it for food and reproduction purposes. 

However, they also play an essential role in maintaining ecological balance within many ecosystems

Dung beetles are an example of the delicate balance within ecosystems, and they play an essential role in nutrient cycling, soil health, and even controlling harmful parasites. They emerge as unsung heroes in agriculture, safeguarding livestock health and preserving pasture fertility.

Like many other creatures on our planet, dung beetles face many threats, from habitat destruction to the impacts of climate change.

This article explores the world of dung beetles, looking at their dietary habits, anatomic characteristics, reproductive behavior, and positioning within different worldwide ecosystems.

Dung Beetle

Credit to: Taka Sithole

Dung Beetle Diet

A. Feeding from the Dung

Dung beetles primarily feed on the nutrient-rich liquid component of Dung. This liquid contains partly digested food and microbial flora from the animal’s gut.

  • Dung beetles have mouthparts adapted for extracting these fluids.
  • Fresh Dung is preferable because it has a higher moisture content. Once Dung dries out, it becomes less useful for beetles since they cannot effectively extract the fluid.

B. Flight in Search of Dung 

Many Dung beetle species are good fliers. They use their sense of smell to locate fresh dung. This flying behavior is especially critical in environments where Dung can dry out quickly or where there’s high competition for this resource.

C. Preference for Herbivore Dung

Most dung beetles prefer the Dung of herbivores. Herbivore dung, primarily composed of plant material, isn’t normally fully digested, which means it contains many nutrients. 

The consistency and composition of herbivore dung are also suitable for shaping into balls or digging beneath.

Herbivore Dung

Credit to: Jorn Heller

D. Few Opt for Carnivore Dung

While herbivore dung is the preference for many dung beetles, some species are adapted to utilize the feces of carnivores.

E. Not All Rely on Dung for Nutrition

While dung beetles are known for their dung-eating habits, not all species rely entirely on Dung for food:

  • Some species might use Dung primarily for reproduction, where the adults feed on other materials but lay their eggs in Dung for the larvae to feed upon.
  • Some beetles within the broader Scarabaeidae family ( which includes dung beetles) prefer feeding on decayed vegetation, fruits, or carrion instead of Dung; some are predators.

The diversity in behaviors and feeding preferences among dung beetles showcases the adaptability of these insects. Over time, they’ve evolved various strategies to exploit available resources and reduce competition.

Dung beetle feeding on mushroom

Credit to: Aritha

The 4 Types of Dung Beetles

  1. Rollers (Telecoprids): These beetles create balls out of Dung, which they then roll to a suitable location. Once in a safe spot, they’ll either feed on the dung ball or use it for reproductive purposes, burying it and laying an egg inside.
  2. Tunnelers (Paracoprids): These beetles dig tunnels directly beneath the dung pile. They then transport Dung down into these tunnels for feeding or reproduction.
  3. Dwellers (Endocoprids): Dweller dung beetles neither roll nor burrow. Instead, they live within the Dung pile, feeding and reproducing directly within it.

How Many Dung Beetles Are There in the World?

There are over 5,000 described species of dung beetles distributed across the world. However, scientists have recorded many more, especially in biodiversity-rich regions.

Where Do Most Dung Beetles Live?

Dung beetles are found on every continent except Antarctica. A combination of factors like climate, availability of Dung, soil type, and the presence of competitors and predators determines their distribution and habitat preference.

  • Tropical rainforests, like the Amazon in South America or the Congo Basin in Africa, are hotspots for the Dung beetle. The warm, wet climate and abundant wildlife offer an ideal environment for many dung beetle species. 
  • The African savannas, with plenty of grasslands, are home to a diverse range of dung beetles. Here, they recycle the waste of large herbivores such as elephants. 
  • Despite their arid conditions, the deserts of Africa and North America also present their unique Dung beetle species.
  • Cooler climates regions like Europe, North America, and parts of Asia also host dung beetles. Although the diversity in these temperate regions may not be as high as in tropical areas, these beetles remain important in recycling waste from wild animals and domesticated livestock
  • Mountainous terrains, such as the Andes in South America or the Himalayas in Asia, also host their dung beetle species. However, as the altitude rises, the species diversity tends to diminish.

Why Are Dung Beetles So Important?

  1. Nutrient Recycling: Dung beetles break down feces and release essential rich nutrients directly into the soil.
  2. Soil Aeration: The tunneling activity of dung beetles helps aerate the soil, increasing water infiltration, reducing erosion, and enhancing the overall health and structure of the soil.
  3. Seed Dispersal: Dung often contains undigested seeds. Dung beetles help with the dispersal of these seeds, promoting plant diversity.
  4. Natural Fertilizer: The processed Dung left behind by beetles acts as a natural fertilizer, improving soil fertility.
  5. Control of Parasites and Flies: Dung beetles rapidly bury and consume Dung, limiting the breeding grounds for harmful parasites and flies, which can harm livestock and local ecosystems.

Dung Beetles in the Agricultural System

Dung beetles enhance livestock health by reducing parasites associated with livestock dung, potentially minimizing the use of chemical parasite control (antihelmintic) for cattle.

They preserve pasture fertility for the benefit of grazing livestock and serve as a natural deterrent to harmful fly populations.

Threats to Dung Beetles

  1. Habitat Destruction: Urbanization, deforestation, and land conversion to agriculture can jeopardize dung beetle habitats.
  2. Pesticides and Insecticides: Chemicals used in agriculture, especially those used to treat livestock for parasites, can be lethal to dung beetles.
  3. Climate Change: Changes in temperature and precipitation patterns can affect dung beetle habitat and distribution.
  4. Overgrazing: Excessive grazing can alter the type and amount of Dung available and impact the soil structure, affecting burrow beetles.
  5. Introduction of Invasive Species: Non-native species can outcompete or prey on native dung beetles, disrupting their ecological system.

Dung beetles are critical for many ecosystems, especially in agricultural settings. Their decline or extinction would result in significant ecological imbalance and challenges in maintaining sustainable farming practices.

Body Features of Dung Beetles

Dung Beetle anatomy

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Dung beetles, like all beetles, have a typical insect body structure with specific adaptations and features related to their dung-related behaviors.

1. Head:

  • Mouthparts: Dung beetles possess mouthparts adapted for chewing, allowing them to break down Dung efficiently. Although they have mouthparts, dung beetles do not bite.
  • Antennae: They have clubbed antennae for sensing the environment.
  • Eyes: Dung beetles have eyes; while they don’t have the best eyesight compared to other insects, they’ve developed a unique orientation method. Researchers have discovered that certain species of dung beetles use the glow of the Milky Way as a guide to roll their dung balls home.

2. Thorax:

  • Legs: The legs, especially the front legs, can be very robust. Many dung beetles have spiky back legs adapted for digging, rolling Dung, or moving through dense materials.
  • Elytra: These are the rigid, protective wing covers typical of beetles. They protect the delicate flying wings beneath. The elytra can vary in texture and color among species.
  • Wings: Underneath the elytra, dung beetles have membranous wings, which they use for flight. Many species are pretty adept fliers.

3. Abdomen:

  • It contains internal organs, and in females, an ovipositor is present. 

4. Exoskeleton:

  • Like all insects, dung beetles have a hard external skeleton (exoskeleton) that provides support and protection. The exoskeleton can vary in thickness, texture, and coloration among species, with some metallic or brightly colored.
Dung beetles different colors

Credit to: Paulo Ziemer

Distinguishing Between Male and Female Dung Beetles

  1. Horns: One of the features of some dung beetle species is the presence of horns. These horns are used during fights over Dung, territory, or mates. Females typically lack large, pronounced horns, but some researchers have proved that some females have big horns.
  2. Body Shape: The body shape can sometimes give clues about the gender. Males might have a more robust or bulkier appearance; however, this seems rare.
  3. Genitalia: The most definitive way to determine the gender of a dung beetle, like many insects, is by examining the genitalia. However, this method requires expertise and is typically done by entomologists under magnification.
  4. Behavioral Observations: Males are often seen pushing and guarding dung balls. They do so to impress potential mates and to secure a safe place for the female to lay her eggs. Females might be observed laying eggs or selecting suitable dung balls made by males for this purpose.

Size of Dung Beetles

  • Smallest Species: Some tiniest dung beetles are just a few millimeters long.
  • Largest Species: The African Dung beetle, Heliocopris dominus, is among the largest species of dung beetles, with some individuals reaching up to 5 cm (about 2 inches) or more in length. Another impressive species is the Scarabaeus Satyrus from South America. However, it’s worth noting that many Dung beetle species fall between these extremes, with a size range of about 1 to 3 cm.

Are Dung Beetles Cockroaches?

No, dung beetles are not cockroaches. While dung beetles and cockroaches belong to the same insect class, they are classified under different orders. Dung beetles belong to the order Coleoptera, while cockroaches belong to Blattodea. 

Life Stages of a Dung Beetle

Dung beetles, like all beetles, undergo complete metamorphosis, which consists of four main stages:

  1. Egg: After mating, the female lays her eggs either within a dung ball (for rollers), in a tunnel (for tunnelers), or directly within the dung pile (for dwellers).
  2. Larva: Once the egg hatches, a larva emerges. This larval stage is grub-like and feeds on the surrounding Dung. It undergoes several molts, growing with each molt.
  3. Pupa: The beetle enters the pupal stage after the final larval molt. This stage is a non-feeding, transitional stage wherein the beetle transforms from its larval form into its adult form. The pupa is usually encased in a protective cocoon made of soil and Dung.
  4. Adult: After pupation, the adult dung beetle emerges. Adults will then seek fresh Dung to feed on and find mates to reproduce. Depending on the species and environmental conditions, the adult stage might last for weeks to months, after which the beetle dies, completing its life cycle.

Lifespan of Dung Beetles

  • Larval Stage: The larval stage of a dung beetle, during which the insect feeds and grows, can last from several weeks to several months, depending on the species and environmental conditions.
  • Pupal Stage: The pupal stage, a transitional period where the beetle transforms from larva to adult, can last from a few weeks to several months.
  • Adult Stage: The adult lifespan of dung beetles varies considerably among species and environmental factors. Some may live as adults for just a few weeks, while others live for several months. 

Mating Behavior

  1. Competition: Males exhibit competitive behaviors in many dung beetle species, especially among the rollers. Males with pronounced horns or other structures often use these to fight rival males, pushing them off dung balls or even flipping them over.
  2. Guarding: Once a male secures a dung ball, he might defend it from competitors, ensuring he’s the one who gets to mate with a female.
  3. Mate Attraction: In some species, creating a dung ball and rolling it serves as a display to attract females.
  4. Mate Guarding: Some males guard the female after mating to prevent other males from mating.

Conclusions

As we’ve explored, the world of dung beetles is a testament to nature’s incredible adaptability and the relationships within ecosystems. 

These beetles, often overlooked due to their seemingly unglamorous dietary choices, are ecological superheroes. Their tasks, from nutrient recycling to pest control, highlight their important role in our environment.

Habitat destruction, overuse of pesticides, and climate change are challenges that can jeopardize the work and life of these insects. However, increased awareness, research, and community involvement can help to mitigate these threats and ensure that dung beetles remain an important player in the health of many ecosystems.

If you found this exploration into the world of dung beetles interesting, please share it with others. We also welcome your thoughts and comments. 

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RenzoVet
RenzoVet

A Veterinarian who grew up in the countryside of a small Italian town and moved to live and work in the United Kingdom. I have spent most of my professional time trying to improve the quality of life of animals and the environmental and economic sustainability of farm enterprises.

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