Sanbona is one of South Africa’s largest privately-owned nature reserves and it is recognised as the Western Cape’s premier wildlife destination. But it offers so much more than the Big 5 and there are countless small creatures within the reserve that each has its own unique role to play in the ecosystem.
Dung beetles for instance, are intriguing creatures that can be observed “at work” in the reserve. They feed on undigested, nutritious plant matter found in animal faeces and they have the singular and most important purpose to break up and bury animal dung. This process acts as a fertiliser in the soil, allowing the improved growth of grass and plants to rejuvenate the veld.Dung beetles are found all over the world, except on the continent of Antarctica. They belong to the superfamily Scarabaeinae, which comprises of more than 5,000 species. They have six legs, as well as flying wings folded under hard, protective covers. These small insects are incredibly strong and on average can roll a ball of dung 50 times their own weight. One specific species can pull a dung ball 1,141 times their body weight, which is equivalent to a human pulling six double-decker buses full of people!
Dung beetles are divided into groups according to how they dispose of the dung, including the “rollers”, which will roll dung into balls for use as food or a place in which the females can lay their eggs. The “tunnellers” bury their dung where they find it, usually working in a pair with the female beetle staying below ground to sort out the dung brought down by the male. “Dwellers”, on the other hand, simply live inside the dung where the female dweller lays her eggs, and the dung serves as food when the larvae hatch. Some scientists have however identified a fourth group known as “stealers” – lazy beetles who steal dung balls from the rollers!
They are particular about the dung they eat, and most dung beetles will only eat the dung of a particular animal, or types of animals. These include elephant, rhino and antelope species. They have a sensitive sense of smell and prefer fresh dung. Within minutes of a herbivore dropping their dung, the beetles will move in, studies having showed as many as 4,000 arriving at a fresh pile of elephant dung within the first 15 minutes.
One of the most fascinating facts about dung beetles is their excellent navigation skills. Scientists have discovered that thanks to the special photoreceptors in its eyes, a dung beetle has the ability to detect a symmetrical pattern of polarised light that appears around the sun, but in the dark it is able to navigate direction by using the stars. Now that is a useful and talented little critter!