Cuckoos: Outsourcing Childcare, Hogging the Bed

(Via:)
(Via: Batsby)

Common Name: Parasitic Cuckoos

A.K.A.: Subfamily Cuculinae (Family Cuculidae)

Vital Stats:

  • Range in length from 15-63cm (6-25”) and weigh between 17g (0.6oz.) and 630g (1.4lbs.)
  • The majority of cuckoos are not parasites, but around 60sp. are (about 56 in the Old World, and 3 in the New World)
  • Babies of brood parasites are initially coloured so as to resemble the young of the host species

Found: The cuckoo family is present throughout the temperate and tropical world, with the exceptions of southwest South America and regions of North Africa and the Middle East. Parasitic cuckoos occupy a subset of this range, principally in the Old World.

Cuckoo Map

It Does What?!

Parenting is tough… less sleep, less free time, all those all those hungry mouths to feed. What’s a busy mother to do? You know you need to perpetuate the species, but who has the time? Impressively, cuckoos have come up with the same answer that many humans have: outsourcing! Involuntary outsourcing, in this case.

One of these things is not like the others.(Via: Timothy H. Parker)
One of these things is not like the others.
(Via: Timothy H. Parker)

Once a female cuckoo has mated and is ready to lay the eggs, rather than build a nest and slog her way through childcare, she waits for another female with freshly laid eggs to take off for some food and just lays her egg there, spreading her clutch across several nests. In theory, when the duped female returns, she’ll just settle in and care for the new egg along with her own. Cuckoo eggs have a shorter incubation period than that of their host, so the foreign egg usually hatches first, at which point the baby cuckoo just gives the other eggs (or chicks, if the timing didn’t quite work out) a good shove, and enjoys having both a nest and a doting mother to itself. The cuckoo chick will tend to grow faster than its host species, so it keeps its adoptive parent busy with constant begging for food, having eliminated the competition.

But this wouldn’t be a fun evolutionary arms race if the host species just took it on the chin. Birds plagued by cuckoo eggs have worked out several ways to try to cope with the problem. First off, and not surprisingly, they’ve developed a burning hatred of cuckoos. Adult cuckoos seen in the area of the hosts’ nests will immediately be mobbed and run off by a group of angry mothers. The cuckoos, however, have learned to use this to their advantage by having the male of a pair tease and lure the angry mob away while the female lays her eggs in peace. Advantage: cuckoos.

And this, kids, is how you deal with those annoying younger siblings.(Via: M. Bán, PLoS ONE)
And this, kids, is how you deal with those annoying younger siblings.
(By: M. Bán, PLoS ONE)

A second strategy used by the parasitised birds is to learn to recognise foreign eggs and pre-emptively toss them out of the nest. Cuckoos responded to this in two ways. First, they slowly evolved eggs to match those of their host bird in colour and size (or, in the case of covered nests, very dark eggs which aren’t easily seen at all). Bird species with higher levels of egg rejection just end up with cuckoo eggs which look more and more similar to their own. Second, if a host does reject the foreign egg, the cuckoo who laid it will sometimes come and just destroy the entire nest, killing anything left inside it in an act of motherly vengeance. Advantage: cuckoos.

A third strategy, developed by the Superb Fairy Wren (not to be confused with the equally floridly named Splendid Fairy Wren) is a bit more clever. As soon as the host mother lays her eggs, she begins to sing to them in a very specific pattern. Now, in this case, the cuckoo egg will hatch around the same time as her own eggs, but was deposited there several days later than her own. This means that her own chicks have been sitting there, unborn, learning her song for a longer period of time than the cuckoo has. Once the eggs are hatched, only her own chicks will be able to properly replicate her calls. Can’t sing the song? No food for you. And if, prior to starving to death, the parasite chick does manage to push her chicks out of the nest, the mother will fail to hear the proper response at all and know to simply abandon the nest entirely. Advantage: Fairy Wren. Superb indeed.

Shrikes: don't try to outsmart a bird that kills mammals for sport.(Via: Arkive.org)
Shrikes… don’t try to outsmart a bird that kills mammals for sport.
(Via: Arkive.org)

There is at least one known case of a former host species throwing off the yoke of cuckoo parasitism entirely. The red-backed shrike, aside from being particularly murderously aggressive toward adult cuckoos (and many other things), became very good at identifying cuckoo eggs, very quickly. So quickly, in fact, that researchers believe the cuckoos simply didn’t have time to adapt. In laboratory experiments, the shrikes correctly identified and rejected 93.3% of all cuckoo eggs placed in their nests. Pretty good pattern recognition for a brain the size of a pea. While cuckoo-red shrike parasitism has been known historically for some time, it hasn’t been seen in nature for the last 30-40 years.

Shrikes for the win.

Fun Facts:

  • Even typically non-parasitic cuckoos will sometimes lay their eggs in the nests of their own or other species, but will still help to feed the chicks (parental guilt, perhaps?).
  • The eggshells of parasitic cuckoos are unusually thick, helping prevent them from cracking as their mother drops them from above into the host nest.
  • Striped cuckoos, not content to just shove their adoptive siblings out of the nest, actually peck them to death with their beaks.
  • A few birds deal with homicidal cuckoo chicks by building steep-sided nests, making it difficult for any chick to be pushed out (and raising them as one big, happy family, I guess).

Says Who?

  • Colombelli-Négrel et al. (2012) Current Biology 22: 2155-2160
  • Feeney et al. (2012) Animal Behaviour 84: 3-12
  • Lovaszi & Moskat (2004) Behaviour 141(2): 245-262
  • Spottiswoode & Stevens (2012) American Naturalist 179(5): 633-648
  • Wang & Kimball (2012) Journal of Ornithology 153: 825-831
Advertisements

The Devil You Know, the Devil You Don’t

(Via: Wikimedia Commons)
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Common Name: The Tasmanian Devil

A.K.A.Sarcophilus harrisii (Family Dasyuridae)

Vital Stats:

  • Latin name translates to “Harris’s Meat Lover” after naturalist George Harris
  • Weigh 6-13kg (13-29lbs.), around the size of a small dog
  • Largest carnivorous marsupials in the world after the extinction of the thylacine in 1936
  • Live up to five years in the wild; fully grown at two years of age

Found: On the Australian island-state of Tasmania

Devil Map

It Does What?!

Spins around in circles and chases talking rabbits, if the cartoons are to be believed. But Tasmanian devils have suffered from some bad press over the years. While they’re often portrayed as incurably vicious, dangerous creatures, this isn’t really the whole truth. Yes, they can scream like a person getting dismembered. And yes, they’re good little hunters that can take down prey larger than themselves, partly thanks to having the strongest bite per unit body mass of any living mammal. (Crunching through large bones is not a tall order for a Tasmanian devil.) But they just as often scavenge carrion killed by other causes, frequently in the form of roadkill. They don’t tend to attack humans, either (unless that human happens to be dead already). Faced with live humans, devils will usually just hold still and hope you don’t see them, sometimes trembling nervously as they do so. Doesn’t exactly strike fear into your heart, does it?

caption(Via:)
How many newborn devils CAN you fit on a 20 cent piece?
(Via: 500 Questions)

In fact, more than anything, devils deserve a bit of sympathy (just ask the ‘Stones)… life is tough for them right from the word ‘go.’ You see, Tasmanian devils are marsupial, meaning the young are born very under-developed and must crawl from the birth canal into their mother’s pouch to find a nipple to latch onto while they finish baking. The problem here is, devils give birth to between twenty and thirty babies, but possess only four nipples, which aren’t shared. In fact, they’re effectively stuck in the infant’s mouth from the time they latch on, preventing them from falling out of the mother’s pouch. So as newborn babies, fresh from the womb, they already have as much as an 87% chance of immediate death. That is some harsh selection right there. Somewhat tellingly, the babies can’t open their eyes until three months after their birth, yet come out of the womb with a full (if small) set of claws. You can see where evolution’s priorities were here.

But it doesn’t get much easier for the four that win the nipple race. Tasmanian devils are already working with a rather restricted range, having been hunted to local extinction on mainland Australia around 3000 years ago (probably by dingoes, which aren’t found in Tasmania). Nevertheless, they were doing pretty well in keeping their numbers up and had a healthy population until the mid-90s, when disaster struck.

caption(Via: Wikimedia Commons)
Don’t image-search this disease… it gets so much worse.
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Because the entire Tasmanian population of devils was originally based on only a few individuals, they’ve experienced a ‘Founder Effect,’ which basically means that the genetic diversity from one animal to the next is quite low. In terms of disease, they’re all susceptible to the same things. So when a form of transmissible cancer known as Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) suddenly popped up in 1996, it spread like wildfire from one devil to the next, mostly via their tendency to bite one another during sex and mealtimes.

An infected devil quickly develops tumours on its face and inside its mouth. This eventually makes it difficult to eat, leading to starvation within a year of contracting the disease. DFTD is estimated to have already killed up to 50% of all devils, rushing them from a healthy population to an endangered species in record time. While the government has taken the step of building up a healthy, captive population which will be isolated from the disease, in the long term, this will have the effect of reducing the species genetic diversity even further. As a small glimmer of hope, researchers are now reported to have found a few individuals with at least partial immunity to the disease, and hope to try to build a cure based on their physiology.

caption(Via:)
Bitey the Devil picks a fight.
(Via: TravelerFolio)

Fun Facts:

  • Tasmanian devils store fat reserves in their tails… a fat-tailed devil is a healthy devil.
  • See the white spots on the devil pictured above? All bite marks. Each scar leaves a patch of white fur. The natural white streak on the devil’s thick-skinned chest is thought to draw attacks away from more sensitive areas.
  • Unlike most other marsupials, the devil’s pouch opens to the rear of her body rather than the front (like a kangaroo), making it impossible for her to interact with her babies while they’re nursing there.
  • Devils tend to try to eat whatever’s available when they’re hungry. The following have been found in their droppings: steel wool pot scrapers, tea towels, parts of leather shoes, blue jeans, plastic fragments, dog collars (minus the unfortunate dog that had been in it), and echidna spines.
  • The only other known form of non-viral, transmissible cancer is a type of venereal disease that occurs in dogs.

Says Who?

  • Attard et al. (2011) Journal of Zoology 285: 292-300
  • Coghlan (2012) “’Immortal’ Tasmanian devil brings vaccine hope” New Scientist, 17 February
  • Grzelewski (2002) Smithsonian 68: February
  • Hamede et al. (2013) Journal of Animal Ecology 82: 182-190
  • Hesterman et al. (2008) Journal of Zoology 275: 130-138
  • Marshall (2011) “Tasmanian devils were sitting ducks for deadly cancer” New Scientist, 27 June

Axolotls in Never Never Land

(Via: National Geographic)
(Via: National Geographic)

Common Name: Axolotls

A.K.A.: Ambystoma mexicanum

Vital Stats:

  • Grow to a length of 15-45cm (6-18”)
  • Can live up to 15 years
  • Have no eyelids
  • Usually black or brown in colour, but mutation occasionally produces pink skin
  • Eat insects, worms, and small aquatic animals
  • Commonly kept as pets and, in parts of Mexico, food

Found: In the Xochimilco lake system, near Mexico City

Axolotl Map

It Does What?!

Axolotls are the Lost Boys of the amphibian world… they never grow up. These bizarre little salamanders are found only in a single lake system near Mexico City and, if the city’s pollution gets much worse, may soon not be found there, either.

First, a little background on salamanders in general. These amphibious, lizard-like creatures begin life in a larval stage. While adult salamanders have lungs and spend much of their time out of the water, larvae have only gills and are completely aquatic. They commonly undergo a metamorphosis in which the gills are lost and the body changes shape, thinning out and losing its ‘tadpole with legs’ appearance. Many salamanders have displayed the ability to occasionally forego metamorphosis, remaining in their larval stage for life. This phenomenon of looking like a juvenile even during adulthood is called “neoteny.”

caption(via:)
The “fully cooked” version.
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

What makes axolotls special is that they’re what’s called “obligate neotenes,” meaning they simply never go through metamorphosis… every adult axolotl looks like the larval stage of other salamander species. At some point in their evolution, it became either more beneficial or downright necessary for them to remain aquatic. Biologists have speculated that this is because their smaller larval form requires less food, and because the lakes where they live are low in iodine, an element required for their transformation.

Interestingly, while axolotls almost never go through metamorphosis in the wild, in a certain percentage of them, the genetic instructions for doing so seem to still be intact. If you have a larval axolotl and you want an adult form, you can either give it an injection of iodine, or, for the more deranged among you, gradually deprive it of its pool of water. Either method of forced metamorphosis has a high mortality rate and, at best, causes a hugely decreased lifespan, but it does show they haven’t entirely lost that capacity.

caption(From:)
The future of multi-tasking.
(From: McCusker & Gardiner (2011) Gerontology 57: 565)

An eternally youthful appearance isn’t even the axolotls’ only superpower. The creatures also possess a Wolverine-like ability to heal themselves. Not only can they – and other salamanders – regrow lost limbs, they can actually regenerate parts of vital organs, including sections of the brain, spinal cord, and, in one study, up to 50% of the heart ventricle. Axolotls can also receive organ transplants from other individuals without rejection or problems with lack of function in the new tissue. Obviously, these traits have made them of intense interest to a certain species which doesn’t regrow limbs, hearts, or spinal cords. Researchers hope that by studying the genetic and biochemical basis of these heightened healing abilities, they can create their own army of X-Men help amputees and victims of spinal cord injuries. But this research is still in its early stages. In the meantime, it would probably be in our best interests not to drive them to extinction.

Fun Facts:

  • Axolotls have tiny vestigial teeth, which in other salamanders only grow during metamorphosis.
  • Sometimes, an axolotl with a heavily damaged limb will both repair the old limb and regrow a new one, ending up with an extra leg (see above).
  • Forced metamorphosis can be only half-successful, producing adult forms with juvenile characteristics, such as a thickened neck.
  • Obligate neotenes like axolotls end up with a lot of extra “junk” DNA [biologists: via duplications of the pseudogenes created when their life history changed], which has actually resulted in their having larger cells than other salamanders.

    caption(Via:)
    It’s hard not to look crazy when you have no eyelids.
    (Via: Aquadisiac News)

Says Who?

  • Chernoff (1996) International Journal of Developmental Biology 40: 823-831
  • Martin & Gordon (1995) Journal of Evolutionary Biology 8: 339-354
  • Neff et al. (1996) International Journal of Developmental Biology 40: 719-725
  • Rosenkilde & Ussing (1996) International Journal of Developmental Biology 40: 665-673

The Old Girls’ Club

(Photo by the Author)
(Photo by the Author)

Common Name: African Elephants, Asian Elephants

A.K.A.: Loxodonta africana, Elephas maximus

Vital Stats:

  • Comprise the entirety of Family Elephantidae and Order Proboscidea
  • African elephants are thought by some to be two species; the African Forest Elephant, and the African Bush Elephant
  • Can live for up to 70 years in the wild
  • The largest living terrestrial animals, reaching heights of up to 4m (13’) and weights of up to 7000kg (15,000lbs.)
  • Consume up to 150kg (330lbs.) of food daily

Found: Savannahs, bushlands, and forests in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia (but sparsely across these regions)

Elephant Map

It Does What?!

Everyone knows elephants are cool. And weird looking. What they don’t tend to get a lot of credit for is just what complex lives they live, and how well-adapted they are to their surroundings. Far from being the dim, bovine, eating machines they’re often depicted as, elephants have been found to have an intelligence and self-awareness ranking up around that of primates and cetaceans, with comparably nuanced societies.

caption(Via:)
Jumbo renounces vegetarianism.
(Via: One Big Photo)

Elephant herds are matriarchal, being led by the oldest female and consisting of her close female relatives and their young offspring. Males are given the boot around the time they reach sexual maturity during their teens (because even the most intelligent animals find teenage boys a trial) and live the rest of their lives either alone or with a small pack of other exiled males.

Good parenting and discipline (delivered by mom with a swat of the trunk) seem to be extremely important for young male elephants; when orphaned males were introduced to a game reserve in South Africa in the late ‘90s, they immediately began going on killing sprees, hunting down and violently killing over 30 (endangered) rhinos, a completely abnormal behaviour for an elephant. As soon as well-adjusted adult males were introduced, the aggression stopped. Everybody needs a good role-model, I guess.

You may have heard stories about so-called “elephant graveyards,” where elephants go to die and leave remains near those of their relatives. While these have now been found to be a myth, appearing due to large die-offs happening suddenly in times of drought, it’s true that elephants show an inordinate amount of interest in the carcasses and bones of other elephants. Presented with a set of bones, elephants will become highly agitated and touch the bones repeatedly with their trunks, especially the dead animal’s tusks. Researchers speculate that this is because the tusks feel the same as they did in life, and touching is such an important aspect of elephant society. They are the only known animal outside of humans to take a particular interest in the bones of their species.

caption(Via:)
Probably not what evolution intended.
(Via: The Road to Anywhere)

And what about their most obviously bizarre feature? How did a prehensile nose develop?! It’s hard to say for sure, but one interesting theory comes from the fact that elephants use their trunks as snorkels while swimming, sometimes crossing shallow lakes by simply walking across the bottom with only their noses above water. Given that manatees are one of elephants’ closest relatives, some scientists have speculated that elephants evolved from aquatic mammals, slowly becoming terrestrial, but never losing their once-important snorkel. (Or their internal testicles, another trait associated with an aquatic lifestyle.) Other scientists think those guys don’t know what they’re talking about and lack evidence to support this theory. So it goes in science.

Whatever their origin, elephants’ trunks have become enormously important in their lives, and are used in everything from eating to fighting to bonding with family members. Actually a fusion of the nose and upper lip, trunks have over 100,000 muscles and are sensitive enough to crack open a peanut shell and retrieve the seed from it. The ability to grasp comes from one or two (in Asian and African elephants, respectively) finger-like extensions at the trunk’s tip. These “fingers,” combined with the elephants’ high degree of intelligence, have allowed them to learn the use of several tools, including tree-branch fly-swatters, which they probably invented millions of years before we came up with the idea. Different priorities…

caption(Via: Wikimedia Commons)
Yeah, we definitely need a few more of these.
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

And finally, let’s not forget the dearly departed cousins. While African and Asian elephants are the only remaining species of Proboscidea, the order containing both mammoths and mastodons, there were once over 160 of them, inhabiting every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Most of these persisted until the most recent ice age killed off nearly all of the largest mammals. Some systematists believe that Asian elephants are in fact more closely related to woolly mammoths than they are to African elephants, and it’s even been speculated that a cloned mammoth could some day be gestated in the womb of an Asian elephant. ‘Cause if we learned anything from Jurassic Park, it’s that reanimating extinct megafauna is a great idea.

Fun Facts:

  • Elephants use ‘seismic communication,’ transmitting messages via a low-pitched rumble, which is detected by distant elephants using the pads of their feet.
  • While they can move surprisingly quickly, elephants don’t technically “run,” due to the fact that their legs never all leave the ground simultaneously.
  • It’s a common myth that elephants get drunk eating fermented marula fruits which have fallen to the ground. Given the low level of alcohol which accumulates in rotting fruit, an animal the size of an elephant would have to eat an unrealistically huge amount in a short time to reach a high enough blood alcohol level. But they do seem to enjoy them as a snack.

Says Who?

  • Choi (2011) “Woolly Mammoths Could Be Cloned Someday, Scientist Says”. Live Science.
  • McComb et al. (2006) Biology Letters 2: 26-28
  • Morris et al. (2006) Physiological and Biochemical Zoology 79(2): 363-369
  • Shoshani (1998) TREE 13(12): 480-487
  • Shoshani & Tassy (2005) Quaternary International 126-128: 5-20
  • Shoshani et al. (2006) Brain Research Bulletin 70: 124-157
  • West (2002) Physiology 17: 47-50

The Life and Times of the Last Earthpig

(Via:)
(Via: National Geographic)

Common Name: The Aardvark

A.K.A.: Orycteropus afer, Family Orycteropodidae

Vital Stats:

  • Also referred to as the “antbear” or “earthpig”
  • Common name derives from Afrikaans words meaning ‘earth’ and ‘pig’
  • Habitats include savannas, grasslands, and woodlands
  • Weighs 40-65kg (88-140lbs.) and can grow up to 2.2m (7’3”) long
  • Can live up to 24 years in captivity
  • Nocturnal, feeding only during the evening and at night

Found: Sub-Saharan Africa

Aardvark Map

It Does What?!

Like the platypus and several other creatures we’ve looked at, aardvarks are considered “living fossils,” organisms which have changed little from the way they looked millions of years ago (around 20 million, in this case).

Aardvarks don’t look much like most mammals of today, other than a passing similarity to the South American anteater, to which it isn’t closely related. In fact, aardvarks aren’t particularly closely related to anything. Not only are they the sole species in their genus, but they have their own family and order as well. This is because everything else that used to inhabit these ranks has since become extinct. At one time, there were at least 14 different species in the aardvark family, spread over parts of Africa, Europe, and Asia; but today, there’s just our friend the earthpig. Strangely, among the aardvark’s closest living relatives are manatees and elephants (all part of the motley superorder, Afrotheria), which suggests just what distant cousins they must be.

Okay, so aside from having outlived its family members, what’s so interesting about these things? Well, one look at them will tell you they must have evolved to fit some unusual lifestyle. Aardvarks are myrmecophagous, meaning they specialise in eating ants and termites, and nearly everything about that odd little body is geared to this task. First, finding their insect food means digging into large anthills and termite mounds, so aardvarks have become prodigious diggers, tunnelling at rates of up to two feet in 15 seconds with their heavily clawed feet. They use this skill in creating their underground burrows as well, excavating tunnels up to 13m (43’) long and even changing their home’s layout from time to time. Because, you know, you get tired of the same old thing…

caption(Via:)
Clark the Aardvark, fresh from finishing his new ensuite bathroom with walk-in closet.
(By: Frans Lanting, Via: Posterlouge)

Moving further up, the aardvark’s narrow, elongated head and long, snake-like tongue are perfect for dipping into the minute passages made by ants and termites. They even have a special sticky saliva that adheres to ants at a touch. In a single night of feeding sessions lasting from five seconds to two minutes per stop, an aardvark can attack 200 hills, consuming as many as 50,000 insects. The ants and termites try to fight back, of course, but the aardvark has thick, tough skin and can seal its nostrils shut, making bites and stings ineffective.

There’s just one feature of the aardvark that doesn’t make a lot of sense for its insect-eating lifestyle, and that’s a set of back teeth. (In fact, they’re are born with front teeth as well, but lose them at maturity.) No other myrmecophage on Earth has a functional set of teeth… you just don’t need ‘em to eat ants. So why do aardvarks have them? A little thing called the Aardvark Cucumber!

In a bonus piece of evolutionary weirdness, aardvarks supplement their diet with a single type of fruit, a cucumber which has now become entirely reliant on hungry aardvarks for its continued existence. The plant flowers above ground – as plants do – but then pushes itself into the earth as it sets fruit, resulting in a subterranean fruit. These cucumbers are dug up by aardvarks and eaten as a source of moisture, while the seeds go undigested and are conveniently deposited elsewhere with a ready source of fertiliser for germination. Without the aardvark, seed dispersal would be impossible, and new plants would be unable to obtain enough water and nutrients to survive.

So there you have the life of the lonely aardvark… enemy of the ants, saviour of the cucumber, brother to no one.

caption(Via:)
“I laugh in the face of probable extinction… and nail clippers.”
(Via: Zooborns)

[Fun Fact: If pursued into its burrow, an aardvark will protect itself by sealing off the tunnel behind itself and digging further into the ground in the other direction.]

[Also… On their front feet, aardvarks have lost their equivalent to our thumb, retaining only four digits.]

Says Who?

  • Endo et al. (2003) Annals of Anatomy 185: 367-372
  • Lehmann et al. (2004) Journal of African Earth Sciences 40: 201-217
  • Lehmann (2008) Fossil Record 11(2): 67-81
  • Taylor et al. (2002) Journal of Arid Environments 50: 135-152
  • Taylor & Skinner (2003) Journal of the Zoological Society of London 261: 291-297

Living in Filth and Looking Up at the Stars

(Via:)
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Common Name: Dung Beetles

A.K.A.: Subfamily Scarabaeinae

Vital Stats:

  • Many subsist entirely on faeces, while others also consume fungi and decaying plant matter
  • Found in extremely diverse habitats, on all inhabited continents
  • Grow up to 6cm (2.4”) long, and can live for up to three years

Found: Across the temperate and tropical regions of the world

Dung Beetle Map

It Does What?!

Dung beetles… if you believe in reincarnation, these are why you try to stay on the straight and narrow. Otherwise, you might end up coming back as a creature whose life quite literally revolves around excrement. Dung beetles owe their entire existence to the fact that larger animals have inefficient digestive systems, consuming manure for its remaining nutrients and even laying their eggs inside it as food for their future young. Gross, yes, but once you get past the “ick” factor, it’s a pretty practical system.

Dung beetles come in three main varieties: rollers, tunnellers, and dwellers. Rollers, which are the type most people are familiar with, roll faeces into small balls which they roll away with them to consume and bury elsewhere. Tunnellers dig under the dung, burying it on site as an underground food source. Dwellers, the slackers of the dung beetle world, don’t bother with burying their treasure, preferring to simply live in it where it falls. I’ll focus on the rollers from here on in, as they’re the most bizarrely specialised of the bunch.

Dung beetles find their warm, fresh meals either through their excellent sense of smell or, in the case of some species, by simply riding around on their chosen food provider until the right time comes. Studies have shown that the beetles prefer omnivore or herbivore droppings to those of carnivores, perhaps for the more easily-digestible plant matter. One particularly intrepid group of researchers even determined that human faeces are favoured above those of most other large mammals. Good job, guys. Your funding agency must be proud.

It's a hot commodity... so to speak.(Via: Wikimedia Commons)
It’s a hot commodity… so to speak.
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Rollers immediately set to work on a new pile of droppings by shaping a dense little ball of up to ten times their weight (about TimBit sized, for you Canadians out there. Mmm!). Before rolling the ball away to be eaten/buried for later, the beetle will climb up on it and do a sort of dance, rotating around its top. Researchers also observed the beetles doing this dance if their rolling path was disturbed, or if another beetle stopped them to try to steal their ball.

So why the dance? As you might guess, it’s a means of getting their bearings, but what’s really fascinating is how they’re doing it. Dung beetles always roll their balls in a straight line directly away from its origin, probably as a means of reducing competition from other nearby beetles as quickly as possible. And they do this despite facing the ground as they roll the ball with their hind legs. During the day, this was fairly obviously accomplished by positioning themselves according to the direction of the sun, using their dorsal vision. However, they can also do it on a clear, moonless night. How?

Using a planetarium and a series of experiments which, hilariously, involved fitting the dung beetles with little cardboard hats to block their overhead vision, a South African researcher has determined that the beetles are actually using the light from the Milky Way to navigate. This is the only known instance of animals using an entire galaxy to orient themselves. Birds and seals have been known to use stars for positioning, but never the Milky Way itself. This from a tiny creature that cleans up piles of poop for a living… there’s probably an inspiring metaphor here somewhere.

Goes great with coffee!(Via: Wikimedia Commons)
Goes great with coffee!
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

In the “But what does it do for me?” department, dung beetles are actually immensely useful to humans. Beyond restoring important soil nutrients, in areas of intense cattle-grazing, the beetles cart off and bury literally tonnes of manure that would otherwise host dangerous parasites and disease-carrying flies. Australia has intentionally introduced African dung beetles for this express purpose. Results have been much better than certain other introductions there.

The value of dung beetles has apparently been recognised for a very long time. Ever heard of the sacred scarab beetles of ancient Egypt? Yep… they’re dung beetles. One and the same. The beetles represented transformation and were linked with the god of the rising sun, who was believed to remake the sun and roll it across the sky each day, like the beetle with its ball. Something to think about next time you’re watching a beautiful sunrise.

[Fun Fact: Dung beetles in the African savanna use their dung balls as thermal refuges, periodically climbing up on them to moisten and cool their feet, which can increase in temperature by as much as ten degrees as they travel over the hot ground.]

Says Who?

  • Baird et al. (2012) PLoS ONE 7(1): e30211
  • Chamorro-Florescano (2011) Evolutionary Ecology 25: 277-289
  • Dacke et al. (2013) Current Biology 23: in press
  • Smolka et al. (2012) Current Biology 22(20): R863-R864
  • Whipple & Hoback (2012) Environmental Entomology 41(2): 238-244

Happy Holidays!

caption(Via:)
It just isn’t a vacation without sloth!
(Via: CostaRicaExperts.com)

Time for a much-needed break, ladies and gentlemen! I’m heading to the farm on vacation for a couple of weeks, then taking off to South Africa for a few weeks after that. I’ll be speaking at the 6th International Legume Conference in Johannesburg, followed by a trip to Kruger National Park in the northeast of the country for a week of botanizing and gaping at large animals. I’ll see if I can’t find some questionable evolution going on there to tell you guys about when I get back. In the meantime, have a happy holiday and a great start to 2013, and I’ll see you back here on January 30th.