The dung beetle isn’t just wonderful because it makes poop rolls for dinner. It has another special ability up its sleeve: it can use celestial navigation to find its way home after playing with its poop balls. The paper describing this trait of the creature is published in the journal Current Biology.
The dung beetle might seem like an insignificant little creature going unnoticed on earth, but, it has a connection with the sky that most do not. Its phenomenal mode of navigation has been revealed since some time now, but that has mostly remained elusive, until the publication of the new study.
If you find a beetle admiring the stars, know that it is, in fact, taking mental pictures of it to find its way home – stars are guides that help people find their way home; apparently, this applies to beetles too. This is what has been revealed by the team of researchers from Lund University, Sweden. Furthermore, they also showed how this information (the images) are saved and used in the brains of the insect. This is an unprecedented feat, as pointed out by lead author, Basil el Jundi, who explains that they are the first to demonstrate that dung beetles are actually taking snapshots of the night sky, and how it is done.
To study the beetles, they were placed in a facility where they were subject to a simulation of the night sky. The beetles would perform a dance on top of their poop balls while recording the snapshots of the position of the stars, and the moon, and the sun. The insects go back to their normal activities after having stored the images in their brains. They would then use them to find their way home if ever they got lost – it is a lot like humans having to take out a map of a foreign place they are visiting to find their way. How amazing is it that a tiny, ‘insignificant’ creature can understand that the stars collectively constitute a guide to indicate one’s way.
Another spectacular ability the dung beetles are endowed with is to spot the spectral gradient of the sky, and polarised light to navigate through paths – something that humans cannot see.
Now, let us get to the part where humans will try to tap into this beetle gift. The researchers suggest that we could use the understanding of the navigation system to build autonomous cars. They mention the creation of robots or algorithms to make these vehicles able to navigate through streets without needing humans to direct them.