Dorothy got it wrong.

Turns out she should have followed the Milky Way.  At least that’s what dung beetles do to orientate themselves when there is no moonlight to roll their dung balls by. Oh my random deity!  Are we all going to live a better life knowing that dung beetles use the light of our galaxy instead of some weird on-board, biological compass?  Is this fact going to lead to some amazing scientific discovery to forever affect the future of beetle-human relationships?  I suppose its fascinating to understand a creature that spends most of its life with its butt in the air and face at the bottom of a drying ball of pooh but really?  Barring the obvious and appropriate publications like Scientific America and National Geographic, big G lists over 18000 links for “dung beetle milky way” created in the last few days – is it really worth a headline.  Oh come on.

Having seen a fair number of the poor buggers pushing gigantic droppings across a dirt track through the Lowveld, I can sympathise, but unlike us Homo sapiens at least they have a purpose in life.  That’s natures way.  Someone needed to deal with the Everest like mounds of rhino and elephant crap – Hey Presto, enter the lowly dung beetle.

To be honest, when I first heard/read this headline I could not for the life of me understand why scientists (generally a pretty intelligent bunch working on usually pretty important things) would feel the need to figure out how a dung beetle gets from point A to point B without going in circles. Sure it walks along with its pooh and its head almost at the ground so it probably does not have a great time doing it, but it manages.  Is this really worth some serious potential Mensa brains figuring how it does it?  One arthropod leg after the next seems pretty self explanatory to me.

Instead of doing my usual and just filing away the lovely titbit of delicious info for my neurons to feast on, my curiosity got the better of me.  Who would want to spend their time figuring this out?  Turns out we have an assistant Professor at Lund University in Sweden, Marie Dacke, (and some others) to thank for the discovery and they have published it in the scientific press.

Now I have the who, but not the why?  What kind of person would be interested in this kind of thing and why?  Turns out Professor Dacke has spent most of her career “developing behavioural methods for measuring the visual performance of organisms as diverse as insects, spiders and humans.

I did warn you about Mensa, didn’t I?  Turns out it’s not really that complicated.  Here is a quote copied from her bio page at Lund Vision Group:

One of my current research projects focuses on nocturnal and diurnal navigational systems. I study these with great admiration for the capabilities of my model animals – all with a brain volume smaller than the size of a rice grain – as I myself totally lack any sense of direction. Neither can I see the polarized light that guides these animals on their journeys.

My frustration at not being able to experience all the sensory realms that Nature has to offer is a driving force behind much of my research. Even if these realms will always remain beyond my own experience, it is rewarding to try and gain insight into the sensory worlds that are obvious to so many other creatures. It is a stunning feeling to unravel mechanisms that underpin behaviours that previously seemed to be based on a strange “sixth sense”, or to realise that mechanisms, which at first glance seem perfectly inadequate, instead provide brilliant solutions to difficult biological problems.

Now I have to apologise. I honestly thought this was just some silly crackpot discovery but it turns out its part of a bigger journey of discovery that has little to do with the dung beetle and more to do with understanding how we and other living things perceive the world.  Just browse the titles of some of the professors other papers and it’s obvious there is a method to the madness.

Ok, humble pie on that front.  But I still don’t think it’s important enough to warrant worldwide headlines!




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