No, these beetles aren’t just trying to boogie down. The curious dance serves as a very important survival tactic, according to scientists. After collecting their loot, the beetles must travel in a straight line away from the main dung pile, to avoid other competing beetles. So how does the beetle successfully push the dung ball in a straight line, while facing backwards and pointing its head down to the ground? Good question. I’m glad you asked.
The researchers of the article, led by Dr. Emily Baird, collected local beetles, Scarabaeus (Kheper) nigroaeneus (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae) on a farm in South Africa. They placed the beetles in plastic bins filled with soil and dung, and documented the perfectly performed sequence. The beetle climbs on top of the ball, rotates, stopping briefly after every rotation, and then climbs down to roll the dung ball.
The researchers suggest that the so-called dance helps the beetle orient itself geographically, using “visual cues present in the sky, such as the sun, the moon, or the pattern of polarized light that forms around them”. The beetles take a “compass reading” just after preparing a ball, and another just before rolling it away. This reading gives the beetle an initial bearing, or a starting point. Disturbances like light reflection and physical obstacles were introduced to see whether this would affect dancing, which it did, signifying that the beetle must re-orient itself until the reading matches its previously identified position.
Watch the dung beetle dance caught on video!