Animals

Published on January 26th, 2013 | by James Ayre

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Dung Beetle Uses The Milky Way For Navigation, First Animal Found To Do So

January 26th, 2013 by

The dung beetle is now the first animal proven to use the light of the Milky Way for orientation and navigation, thanks to new research from Wits University. The vast and dim milky glow of our home galaxy apparently provides a good source of orientation when the Sun or a bright Moon isn’t available (or meteor showers for that matter).

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Dung beetles don’t have eyes that are sharp enough to clearly distinguish between exact constellations (from our current understanding of their eyes). They rely on the overall gradient of light to dark, that the light of the Milky Way provides, to get a sense of orientation. This allows them to make sure that when they are harvesting dung from a dung pile, that they continue moving away from it instead of accidentally circling back into their competitors.

“The dung beetles don’t care which direction they’re going in; they just need to get away from the bun fight at the poo pile,” claims Professor Marcus Byrne from Wits University.


The researchers have previously published other findings on the dung beetle, including proving that dung beetles make use of the Sun, the Moon and polarised light for orientation and navigation.

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For the first experiments, the dung beetles had their eyes covered up and blocked with “caps”, and were then observed. During the research, a seemingly new behavior was also discovered. The dung beetles were observed climbing to the top of their dung balls, and then using the higher position to locate the sources of light that they then used for orientation, the researchers labelled it as a “dance”.

To follow up on that first research, further experiments were then conducted under the simulated light and night sky of the Wits Planetarium. In the planetarium, the beetles were very clearly shown to be using the Mohawk of the Milky Way for orientation and navigation.

“We were sitting out in Vryburg (conducting experiments) and the Milky Way was this massive light source. We thought they have to be able to use this — they just have to!” said Byrne.

“Not all light sources are equally useful landmarks for a dung beetle. A moth keeping a constant angle between itself and a candle flame will move in a circle around the flame. However, a celestial body is too far away to change position relative to a dung beetle as it rolls its ball, with the result that the beetle keeps travelling in a straight line.”

It’s very likely that the dung beetles have some ‘hierarchy of preference’ as far as available light sources goes, but it’s not entirely clear yet what it is. If both a bright moon and the Milky Way were both visible, it’s assumed that the beetles would focus on one.

There have actually been quite a few animals that have been proven to make use of the stars as a way to orient themselves and navigate the world. The dung beetle is, for now, the only animal shown to use the Milky Way for this purpose though.

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Many species of birds have been found to make use of star light as a navigation tool (in addition to magnetoreception, smell, and vision), as well as certain species of insects. It’s very likely that there are other animals that make use of it too.

There has been some research in recent years suggesting that as light pollution from human settlements has been increasing many species have been losing their ability to navigate properly, especially during important times such as when some species gather for mating. Anyone who has ever witnessed a large swarm or gathering of insects around an artificial light source can attest to this.

Here’s some more information on the Milky Way, and observing it in the night’s sky:

“The Milky Way is the galaxy that contains our Solar System. This name derives from its appearance as a dim ‘milky’ glowing band arching across the night sky, in which the naked eye cannot distinguish individual stars. The term ‘Milky Way’ is a translation of the Classical Latin via lactea, from the Hellenistic Greek γαλαξίας κύκλος (pr. galaxías kýklos, ‘milky circle’). The Milky Way appears like a band because it is a disk-shaped structure being viewed from inside. The fact that this faint band of light is made up of stars was proven in 1610 when Galileo Galilei used his telescope to resolve it into individual stars. In the 1920s, observations by astronomer Edwin Hubble showed that the Milky Way is just one of many galaxies.”

“When observing the night sky, the term ‘Milky Way’ is limited to the hazy band of white light some 30 degrees wide arcing across the sky (although all of the stars that can be seen with the naked eye are part of the Milky Way Galaxy). The light in this band originates from un-resolved stars and other material that lie within the Galactic plane. Dark regions within the band, such as the Great Rift and the Coalsack, correspond to areas where light from distant stars is blocked by interstellar dust.”

“The Milky Way has a relatively low surface brightness. Its visibility can be greatly reduced by background light such as light pollution or stray light from the moon. It is readily visible when the limiting magnitude is +5.1 or better, while showing a great deal of detail at +6.1. This makes the Milky Way difficult to see from any brightly lit urban or suburban location but very prominent when viewed from a rural area when the moon is below the horizon.”

“The Galactic plane is inclined by about 60 degrees to the ecliptic (the plane of the Earth’s orbit). Relative to the celestial equator, it passes as far north as the constellation of Cassiopeia and as far south as the constellation of Crux, indicating the high inclination of Earth’s equatorial plane and the plane of the ecliptic relative to the Galactic plane. The north Galactic pole is situated at right ascension 12h 49m, declination +27.4° (B1950) near beta Comae Berenices, and the south Galactic pole is near alpha Sculptoris. Because of this high inclination, depending on the time of night and the year, the arc of Milky Way can appear relatively low or relatively high in the sky. For observers from about 65 degrees north to 65 degrees south on the Earth’s surface the Milky Way passes directly overhead twice a day.”

Source: Wits University and Wikipedia

Image Credits: Emily Baird; Milky Way and Dung Beetle via Wikimedia Commons

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About the Author

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.



  • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

    ha :D

  • Jeff Silverstein

    Fine article, except the first animal “found” to navigate by the milky way is homo sapien. Not very sapient after all.

  • http://www.facebook.com/george.hilliard.750 George Hilliard

    It appears there is a lot we can learn from “professional” turd-rollers!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Zygnomic-Terrorism/100003819320979 Zygnomic Terrorism

    Oh Jee, Is this story propuhganduh, then why didn’t the “synoptic’s administration” of get my atta boy’s to me the first time?. do the picture’s suggest in-sect’s in a world of s.hit?. who ever is posting this story so much is doing the work of hate group propaganda.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jim-Clancy/100001054502726 Jim Clancy

    The real question is, who funded this study and why ?

  • Khalil Grace

    i think this merits renaming it the Milky Way Beetle.

  • Jeff Ruth

    Okaaaay, so now we should all carry dung beetles if we are out camping…beats compasses I’ll wager. I can hear those little guys now….”Hey Clyde, roll that thing a bit towards Orion and you’ll be fine!”

  • http://www.facebook.com/clifford.ayers.9 Clifford Ayers

    whoop de damn do do!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Zygnomic-Terrorism/100003819320979 Zygnomic Terrorism

      Whoopem Doupem Gay-ping Doupem. is that what you meant.

  • Eric Gasteron

    That’s why Beetles get lost on cloudy days…retards. Could not expect more from “Nathan” who saw a parallelism between beetles looking for the milky way to push a turd, and himself asking God’s guidance to write a crappy article.

  • Tony Montana

    another fascinating creation, thank you God

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dennis-Madden/1097769655 Dennis Madden

    I think they are pushing some BS.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_5VF7X3BMXVOJETGTWF3WMWL674 Major Wood

      Thanks for stealing my line! :{)

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Zygnomic-Terrorism/100003819320979 Zygnomic Terrorism

      Hey someone else can see their hate group propaganda tactics too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/norm.lambert.5 Norm Lambert

    I want to do a study, lets see what makes absolutely no difference that someone wants to pay me to study:do butterflys face west when they mate. I will watch them for $300,000.00 per week, Let me know who wants my info for the deposit

    • D. Canal

      You aren’t very bright there, are ya Norm? In fact, I’d hazard a guess that it’s been quite some time since you’ve been enrolled at an institution of higher learning, if ever. If you have in fact been educated at such a place within the last few years, well, let’s just say you mask the fact very well. Ayoub has already pointed out your error in assuming that research like this is useless – only a moron assumes that information, of any kind, is a worthless commodity. So what if you don’t live near dung beetles or have no need for them? Are you aware of how many medical and scientific breakthroughs have been made with the guidance of creatures you don’t give a shit about? There are frogs in rainforests thousands of miles from your home that are helping to enhance our understanding of blood clotting and strokes, but following your logic, screw ‘em!

      But beyond that, what in the world makes you think that all that money you’re imagining goes to line the pockets of scientists? Seriously, dude? You can’t be that dense – how many millionaire scientists do you know? That money goes to fund the RESEARCH, not the RESEARCHER. It is used to buy materials, and pay for travel, and cover very expensive equipment. Think before you speak, Norm. You’re making it real easy to stereotype yourself.

  • http://www.facebook.com/norm.lambert.5 Norm Lambert

    who is the asshole that funded this study. we have turd-rollers, I have never witnessed stars during the day when they are going to their nest. for REAKL someone is getting paid for this dumb shit

    • http://www.facebook.com/tomas.madamba Ayoub Madamba

      Maybe entomologist in a University had funds to run research on dungbeetles. We study bugs because bugs are actually a big part of our planets eco system. Without “turf rollers”, and other bugs that deal with feces, you’d be swimming in your own shit.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Zygnomic-Terrorism/100003819320979 Zygnomic Terrorism

        You’re almost as bad as John Kerry’s daughter, I mean you said that exactly like an obloquiously domesticated municipal commerce brat. you know none of the good life. everything in the mass populate today is mass shit. huh, john kerry.

        • http://www.facebook.com/tomas.madamba Ayoub Madamba

          John Kerry? How does a politician have anyting to do with this article?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Zygnomic-Terrorism/100003819320979 Zygnomic Terrorism

      And to top it off it’s the united States MkUltra hate group propaganda. I think Uhmericuh needs a major dose of 3 day’s of the condor to stop their MkUltra fagot shit from ruining the rest of what they havn’t ruined yet. bulldoze the George Bush center for indignation get rid of private defense manufacturing and contracting by making it all government non profit by ending all the benchmarks and earmarks to it and then maybe they will die off after everyone in the world has learned the truth.

  • Support

    You spelled “That” wrong in the first sentence of your article. =(

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dean-Day/100000252878081 Dean Day

    Ad astra per aspera

  • salvador augustus

    my mind just blow

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