Take a closer look at the different types of dung beetle
Updated: Sep 25
By: Tasneem Johnson-Dollie
When you think of a dung beetle, a busy black bug scampering across bumpy terrain is probably what springs to mind. But there are actually many different types of dung beetle.
There are so many beetles that they’re thought to make up around 25% of all life on Earth. That means one in every four lifeforms is a beetle!
And these interesting insects make up a good part of this group. But unlike other beetles, they have a very specific way of getting things dung – yes you read it right. Here are some dung beetle facts that you’ll wish you knew sooner.
Dung beetle facts
You might think that a dung beetle is a pretty straightforward bug, but these interesting insects outshine all the rest when it comes to dealing with dung. Let’s take a closer look at what could be the most interesting insect in the world.
What do dung beetles eat?
If you haven’t yet guessed what a dung beetle eats, it’s dung.
While their favourite food might seem foul to us, they’re actually quite picky about their choice of poo.
In fact, it nearly caused a dung disaster in Australia in the 1900s.
The Australian dung beetles’ preference for marsupial poo meant that they wouldn’t clean up after any other animals.
This manure management problem was solved by introducing foreign dung beetles to the mix, getting them to munch on what the local bugs left behind.
Many dung beetles eat the dung of herbivores, some crave the poop of carnivores, and others favour decaying leaves and fungi.
So yes, some of these beetles don’t eat dung at all.
But these interesting insects are still classified as dung beetles. This is because they’re part of the group of bugs that eat away at the manure and decay that would otherwise clog up our ecosystems.
Dung is made up of solid waste with liquid in between, with these interesting insects favouring the nutrient-rich liquid of the dung.
Herbivores don’t fully digest all their food. This means that their dung is swimming with nutrients and microorganisms for beetles to feed on.
This explains why many a dung beetle has a hankering for herbivore manure. But dung is more than just a delicacy for these beetles.
Where do dung beetles live?
Dung beetles can live almost anywhere in the world. They’re found on every continent except Antarctica.
The reason they’re found all over is because dung is found all over. And this steamy sustenance also serves as their humble abode.
But how does a dung beetle make a home out of such a stinky substance? Interestingly, this is what splits dung beetles into different categories.
What are the different types of dung beetle?
With more than 5,000 different types of dung beetle, getting to know more about them can be a tough task.
Scientists have divided dung beetles into four different categories according to how they deal with their dung.
Rollers or telecoprids are the types of beetles that shape the dung into a ball, then roll it to where they want to set up camp, and bury it in the ground. This ball could be used for food or as a brood ball – a place for female dung beetles to lay their eggs in.
Tunnellers or endocoprids dig tunnels underneath a pat of poo, grab some dung from the pat, and pull it back down into the tunnel. Tucked away at the bottom of these tunnels, they feed on the transported manure, form brood balls, and raise their babies.
Dwellers or paracoprids don’t bother to tunnel or roll dung. They’re happy to just hop on top of a dung pat, where they lay their eggs and raise their young. While these bugs may have an easier set-up strategy than the rest, they run a higher risk of being eaten or trampled on by other animals than the first two types of dung beetles.
Stealers or kleptocoprids are definitely the most devious dung beetles. They steal dung balls from rollers and use them to lay their own eggs in. Even their larvae are devilish, killing the host beetles’ larvae as they develop in the dung ball.
Despite their decisions on dung management, these different types of dung beetles do have a lot in common.
Each day the animal kingdom produces enough dung to match the amount of water falling over the Victoria falls. The different types of dung beetle all work together to take care of this torrent of detritus. Without the collective efforts of these tiny creatures, we’d be sitting with a seriously smelly situation.
But what’s interesting about them besides their ability to stop our planet from being overrun with poop?
Why is a dung beetle one of the most interesting insects in the world?
For one, dung beetles form part of some of the most fascinating stories in human history.
From as far back as the ancient Egyptians, dung beetles have been part of mythical stories. This beetle was held in such high regard by the Egyptians that they believed a dung beetle rolled the sun through the sky as if it were a giant ball of dung.
The face of the Egyptian sun god Kephri was even depicted as a scarab – another name for a type of dung beetle found in Egypt.
While science has since proven that the sun isn’t propelled by a dung beetle, there are still many dung beetle facts that are simply fascinating.
Here are ten things you may not have known about these interesting insects:
Some dung beetles live around monkeys’ – and other animals’ – anuses, heeding the first-come-first-served philosophy.
For those not on the frontline of faeces collection, their specialised antennae helps them pick up the scent of poo on the wind.
If they didn’t move manure below the ground, it would harden at the surface and stop plants from growing.
With 150 different types of dung beetle in the tropics, some have evolved non dung-based diets. For example, some munch the mucus of giant land snails while living on their backs, while others decapitate other insects and use their abdomens as dung ball substitutes.
They can eat more than their own weight in a 24-hour period.
They are the first known species in the entire animal kingdom who use the milky way to navigate at night. A dung beetle can pick up on the polarised light given off by stars and use this as a map to keep itself on course.
On hot days, they’re known to stand on top of their dung balls to give their feet a break from the scorching ground.
Some species can roll a ball of manure the size of an apple.
In South Africa, there are 800 unique species of dung beetle, a massive amount compared to the UK’s 60 species.
Flightless dung beetles are endemic to southern Africa and can roll up to 50 times their own weight.
Possibly the most interesting insect in the world, the dung beetle can teach us all a thing or two about cleaning up and caring for the Earth.
Sign up with Bushwise Field Guides and learn more about the different types of dung beetle in these waste-removing wonder bugs’ natural environment.