Feb. 12 - The African dung beetle uses the Milky Way for nighttime navigation, joining humans, seals and birds as the only creature to navigate by the stars. Scientists researching the creatures in South Africa, say its part of a survival mechanism that gives the insect its fastest route away from competitors. Ben Gruber reports.
Night time in Vryburg, South Africa and two dung beetles are engaged in a food fight. After the clash, the victorious insect scuttles away with its dung ball, searching for a safe place to eat his prize. Even in the dark of night, the beetle has a highly developed sense of direction, taking the straightest path away from its competitor. Biologists have long wondered how the beetles do it....and now they know. Dung beetles use the Milky Way as their guide. (SOUNDBITE) (English) MARIE DACKE, BIOLOGIST, LUND UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "Even if the beetle can't see the individual stars, they can still see this band of light and then they can either roll with the Milky Way, or across the Milky Way or at any angle to the Milky Way as they wish and thereby be able to keep a straight path even at night." Biologist Marie Dacke and zoologist Marcus Byrne decided to test the beetles' navigation skills in a controlled environment - so they took the insects to the Johannesburg planetarium - where realistic night time scenarios could be created. (SOUNDBITE) (English) MARIE DACKE, BIOLOGIST, LUND UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "..and then we could test the performance of the beetles under these different sky conditions and the night where we only had the Milky Way projected on to the planetarium dome the beetles were doing equally well as they were under a of full starry sky so that's when we understood that it must be the Milky Way that they are relying on to orientate themselves in straight lines." Marcus Byrne believes their findings demonstrate that tiny brains are no hindrance to intelligent behaviour. And Byrne loves dung beetles. No matter what, he says, the animal just keeps on rolling. (SOUNDBITE) (English) MARCUS BYRNE, ZOOLOGIST, UNIVERSITY OF WITWATERSRAND, SAYING: It's the tenacity of the dung beetle, it doesn't care where it is, whether it is day or night it's a great animal to work with." And now the researchers are trying to determine if the beetles navigation skills are effected by different surfaces and terrains. The bottom line they say is that it appears obvious, the beetle will do whatever's necessary to hold on to its dung.