10th Jan 2014

Even Dung Beetles Stargaze

Last year, an Ig Nobel Prize was given to researchers who discovered that dung beetles use the Milky Way to navigate. The Ig Nobels famously honour achievements that first “make people laugh, and then make them think”, and this particular achievement was a triumph of both physics and biology.

The study found that dung beetles (Scarabaeus lamarcki) can only see the very brightest stars in the sky, so at night when the huge band of the Milky Way stretches overhead, they are able to see a long line of bright light and hence use it to help travel in a straight path. To test this, the researchers made special little hats for the beetles—one type made out of black cardboard, and the other type, a control group, made out of clear material. They simulated the Milky Way in a planetarium, and found that when the hats blocked the view of the sky, the dung beetles had trouble navigating, and so they must use it as an orientation cue.

“It’s quite impressive for an animal that size,” said Professor Warrant, one of the researchers, because previously we only thought humans, birds and seals used the stars for orientation.

Researchers are now trying to figure out how dung beetles use other cues to navigate—one recent study found that they may use the sun to steer their balls of dung, but it will also be interesting to figure out how important each of these different cues are to the beetles.

(Image Credlt: 1, 2)

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