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Dung beetles and the Milky Way
February 3, 2013 6:27 PM   Subscribe

Dung beetles and the Milky Way "When you view the Milky Way, you are gazing through the plane of this disk and at the universe around and beyond—which, astronomers report, is imponderably vast and contains billions of other galaxies ... On Earth, at least, humans suppose that we alone seek out the sweep of our own galaxy. But we’re wrong. In a paper in Current Biology, Marie Dacke, and her colleagues revealed that at least one other species takes guidance from the Milky Way: the dung beetle".
posted by dhruva (20 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
That's a whole 'nother ball of shit.

What?
posted by clvrmnky at 6:38 PM on February 3, 2013


Paging Gregor Samsa. Gregor Samsa to the Princeton Observatory, please!
posted by trip and a half at 6:51 PM on February 3, 2013


What a beautiful and fascinating article. Thanks.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:53 PM on February 3, 2013


This is interesting! Did they control for "amount of light," though? Moon with stars, no moon with stars, and only Milky Way are still all considerably brighter conditions than just a few bright stars, overcast night, and cardboard over eyes conditions, so it seems just as likely that the dung beetles navigate better when there is more light, rather than necessarily the stars. Although, maybe I'm missing something! It sure would be exciting if it turns out that Oscar Wilde was talking about dung beetles all along.
posted by Pwoink at 7:11 PM on February 3, 2013


Life: sometimes you roll the shit, sometimes the shit rolls you.
posted by srboisvert at 7:19 PM on February 3, 2013


Did they control for "amount of light," though?

Here's a bit more information. "In the planetarium, times were recorded under four ceiling projection conditions: a complete starry sky (starry sky), a diffuse streak of light that imitates the Milky Way (Milky Way), 4,000 dim stars excluding the Milky Way (4000 dim stars), 18 brightest stars excluding the Milky Way (18 bright stars), or complete darkness (black). "
posted by dhruva at 7:32 PM on February 3, 2013


There was a segment on NPR on Friday on this: Dung Beetles Use Cosmic GPS to Find Their Way -- Transcript and Audio [05:04].
posted by ericb at 7:40 PM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


...but some of us are looking at the stars?
posted by wam at 8:31 PM on February 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


I was listening to the NPR segment the other day. I was fascinated yet laughing because of how many times the word "dung" was said in such a short time, and also because of the idea of little cardboard hats on bugs.
posted by azpenguin at 8:50 PM on February 3, 2013


This is interesting! Did they control for "amount of light," though? Moon with stars, no moon with stars, and only Milky Way are still all considerably brighter conditions than just a few bright stars, overcast night, and cardboard over eyes conditions, so it seems just as likely that the dung beetles navigate better when there is more light, rather than necessarily the stars. Although, maybe I'm missing something! It sure would be exciting if it turns out that Oscar Wilde was talking about dung beetles all along.

I think the point is just that it's cool they can use the Milky Way alone to navigate by. Just another "here's a thing an animal can do!" footnote for relevant textbooks. They probably *do* navigate better when there's more light - hence why they were more accurate when working by the moon. But, in the absence of a moon, in some Argentinian cerrado plain, the Milky Way works just fine. I don't know if you guys have ever seen dung beetles fumbling around, but they're super adorable and, as the article says, completely determined. The image of these single-minded males wheeling a ball of dung night after night, navigating by the stars and trying to win over the ladies, blissfully unaware of whatever presidential election or fall of the Roman Empire or whatever other preoccupation... that just makes me really happy.
posted by Buckt at 9:01 PM on February 3, 2013 [10 favorites]


I heard a radio bit about this maybe a week ago, and the guest on the NPR show said that navigation is important for dung beetles, because they need to move in a straight line away from the dung pile once they've rolled up a ball. Apparently, there are lazy dung beetles that don't want to bother rolling their own balls; they'd rather beat up another dung beetle and take theirs instead. If they don't move straight, they significantly increase their chance of being mugged.

I had an image of tiny beetle tough guys with switchblades.
posted by Malor at 9:02 PM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hey, nice dung ball you got there - be a pity if anything, um, happened to it.
posted by Curious Artificer at 9:27 PM on February 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Streak of stars overhead
A cosmic skidmark
That plumbs the dung-line
And rolls the ball to safety
posted by Camofrog at 12:31 AM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


If they're navigating then they must have something like a mental map inside their heads. How do they do it with those teeny-tiny brains? They're like honeybees, but stinkier.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:42 AM on February 4, 2013


We are all lying in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars and using them to guide little balls of little balls of shit around.
posted by PlusDistance at 4:32 AM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Dung, that's impressive!
posted by ersatz at 4:54 AM on February 4, 2013


Dung beetles, too, are made of star stuff ....
posted by mightshould at 5:47 AM on February 4, 2013


Dung beetles, the Jack Horkheimer of the insect world.
posted by orme at 6:22 AM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


This fits very tidily with my long held hypothesis that beetles aren't from this planet.
posted by billyfleetwood at 8:10 AM on February 4, 2013


Yeah, well okay. They can find north and south. How do they remember where their house is?

Never mind. Per feces ad astra. Or verse visa. (somebody please FTFM)
posted by mule98J at 9:13 AM on February 4, 2013


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