Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Beetle After My Own Heart

In the middle of the night, in the dark moments reserved for anxiety and existential dread, it suddenly came to me that I really don't know much at all about dung beetles. And in the very next redemptive moment, I thought: this can be rectified.

After all, this should be my soul beetle.  Here is a critter more interested in poop than I am. The dung beetle seeks it out, collects it, sculpts it, rolls it around, eats it, and raises the chilluns in it. Compared to that, I have only a passing interest.

The true dung beetles, as opposed to those merely drawn to the lifestyle, are members of the Scarab family. Some, called Dwellers, are content to live in shit--we all know the type; some, the Tunnelers, prefer to bury it; but the coolest ones are wholly Rollers. They form dung into perfect spheres and roll them over the landscape. Any kind of dung will do, but most prefer it from a herbivorous source, and why not? That comes in pies and apples. A small underclass of Rollers with an unhealthy sense of entitlement prefers to wait for rabbit doots, which come pre-balled.

The shit balls themselves are a triumph of architecture. They are perfectly round and roll nicely in a straight line, which is important to the dung beetle, who, in a moment of his evolution that had great consequences for dung beetledom to come, has elected to roll it with his hind feet, backwards. This behavior developed at an evolutionary crossroads comparable to the juncture at which early hominids lost the ability to swing from trees and had to substitute religion to soothe their trudging souls. The dung beetle, operating blind, likes to get a read on his direction and then start pedaling away. Every so often he stops long enough to get up on his shit ball and dance. This is a satisfied beast.

Usually the balls are taken away to be eaten, but sometimes they are formed into a Brood Ball by a paired set of beetles, and the female lays her eggs inside of the Brood Ball and the larvae eat their way out. It is a tidy arrangement. In human terms, it would be a gigantic ball with a milky center, an inner shell of strained carrots, a middle core consisting of ten years of balanced nutrition surrounded by a mantle of pizza and soda pop, with the whole thing soaked in beer and whiskey. By the time our baby has eaten his way out of that, he's ready to roll, one way or the other. And the dung beetle replicates all of that with shit alone.

The ancient Egyptians, who did not have TV, spent a lot of time looking at this beetle, and found much to admire. In particular, they believed the dung beetle represented the Sun. Their best minds had already discovered that the sun did not travel from east to west, as it appeared to, but rather backwards, from west to east. And here the lowly dung beetle was propelling his ball of shit, which looks exactly like the sun, if you squint, backwards. They furthermore assumed that all of the beetles were male and they were able to replicate themselves by jacking off in the dung balls. Which was more or less what the sun was presumed to do overnight when no one was looking. So the science of sun-to-beetle equivalency was a slam dunk. Hoo-Ra, they said, and began carving scarabs out of jade as fast as they could. And that's why I love ancient Egyptians. Anyone who can look at a ball of shit and be reminded of the Sun is a poet, in my book.

Meanwhile modern scientists are hard at work. Already the dung beetle has been declared the strongest of insects, gram for gram, capable of rolling 1141 times its own weight, which means that someone, somewhere, made a project of carefully weighing beetles and shit balls and developing tiny harnesses and traces and applying math to it all, and that's why I love scientists.

Much was learned about the dung beetle world in the 19th century by the pioneering scientist Jean-Henri Fabre, the Father of Modern Entomology. Fabre it was who discovered that the dung beetles did not congregate in order to advance beetle society, but were merely trying to rip off each other's balls. Fabre is famous for another experiment in which he arranged a set of Processionary Caterpillars, known to follow each other closely on a scent trail, in a loop on the lip of a pot, and watched them go around and around. The caterpillars, known as the Unwanted Stepchildren of Modern Entomology, continued marching in a loop for seven days, after which they beat up M. Fabre, trashed his place, stole his coin collection, and bought a bunch of meth.

Late-breaking scientific work is gaining insight into the frolicsome Shit Ball Dance, too. Researcher Emily Baird has rigged up shit ball rolling fields and introduced obstacles into them, and (bless her heart) fashioned little hats for the beetles, and she has come to the conclusion that the beetle climbs aboard his dung ball in order to track the polarized light from the sun and correct course, if need be. Essentially, the dashboard with the GPS is on top of the dung ball, and it's also the spot with the best coverage, in case he needs to phone for help.

So say the experts. But I like to think that maybe the ancient Egyptians just thought scarabs were fun to watch and easy to carve in jade. And that sometimes, when you've made a perfect shit ball and you're rolling it in the sun, you just gotta get up on it and dance.

73 comments:

  1. This sounds a lot like an analogy for my job. I'll be hoping for a little sun to shine on my shitball today.

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    1. "...sunshine...on my shit ball...makes me happy..."

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  2. "sometimes, when you've made a perfect shit ball and you're rolling it in the sun, you just gotta get up on it and dance."

    Most excellent!

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    1. I mean, look at it. It IS perfect.

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    2. I liked watching the beetles "play with" their dung. And they did seem to to play...or maybe I was weird.

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  3. Ah, yes, a passing interest in poop. No doubt.
    Or as the dung beetle said to the bartender, "Is this all there is in life; eat shit and die?". Excellent scientific post. Thank you.

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    1. In some areas, owls collect shit and leave it arranged somewhere so they can scoop up the beetles when they come to get it. For those beetles, that's pretty much the way life is.

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  4. It totally eludes me as to why, after all of these centuries, scientists and others who study the dung beetle, cannot figure out what it was about the beetle that made it sacred to the Egyptians. Why they have failed to see, there for all to see, engraved into the heart of hieroglyphics, that most sacred of sports... the Dung Ball Derby. Dung Ball Derby's were the first wide-spread gambling events in recorded history. Events that could be enjoyed not only by kings, but also by the common man right in his living room. It's a little known fact that the Holy Passover really had nothing to do with the Angel of Death. It was simply a fortunate coincidence that everyone was inside on Dung Derby Day. And that's the rest of the story.

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    1. This has the ring of something a lot like truth.

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  5. Whose to say what kind of shit balls roll around in the minds of scientists. Obviously they spend a lot of time with their heads in places where the sun don't shine.

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  6. It's pretty easy to figure out why those beetles push the poop balls backwards. It's so they won't have to SMELL them. (It's purely irrelevant that their kids EAT the stuff.)

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    1. Yeah, I don't know, I'm thinking the smell isn't getting to them. If it is, they have no reason to dance.

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  7. There was, back in the early 70s I think, a bit of a fad for Ancient Egypt, Book of the Dead, etc. The scarab theme showed up in a lot of jewelry., but I just couldn't get into wearing a dung-beetle. Too much information is a nuisance if you want to be cool.

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    1. I'm guessing you didn't think pyramidal crystals were going to get you enlightened, either.

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  8. I have to respect someone who can get so much humor and inspiration out of beetles that roll poo-balls around.

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    1. What else are you going to get out of them?

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  9. It wasn't until you pointed it out that I, too, realized my own dearth of dung beetle knowledge.

    It's good to know that I was not alone in that.

    Another lovely post. :-)

    Pearl

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    1. Sadly, most of today's youth are also uninformed. I'm trying to rectify that.

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  10. "Passing interest" and "wholly Rollers"! *snorks tea*

    Thanks for that. :-)

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  11. If I was a dung beetle and I've thought for many years that I am, then I would be able to roll a ball of shit that weighed 208803 pounds. Since I can only manage a couple of hundred pounds that proves I am not a dung beatle or if I am then a weak one. My upper limit has been tested but only mentally. I tend to drop my shit and flee when it gets too big.

    Another possibility is it quite often is reduced in size by theft as I live in a poor neighborhood where a common conversation goes like this.
    "What is 'dat?"
    "I donno, I jus' takem."

    Thanks for a most entertaining post. I'll be thinking of this all day.

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    1. I'll be thinking of how you know you can roll a two-hundred pound ball of shit.

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  12. Hey, wonder if anyone has ever tried to dry and powder the balls and then snorting it. Might just start a whole new craze. Wonder just how long it would take the govmnt to come along and declair shit illegal. Imagine when boarding an airplane, they have to shove a stick up "there" to see if you are carrying anything illegal.

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    1. I'm pretty sure if you dry your balls, you should powder them, but I don't know if that makes them snortworthy.

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  13. You absolutely made up for your previous dung beetle ignorance. Personally, I love watching them wolf down the sheep nuggets that litter the Scottish hills. There are already more than enough sheep nuggets as it is; it doesn't bear thinking about how many there'd be if the dung beetles didn't go about their business with such diligence.

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    1. See, now, your Scottish beetles are in that underclass, going for the pre-rolled shit.

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  14. I think all dung beetles are fascinating. I attended a talk on dung beetles that live in Texas and found that they can bury up to a ton of manure per acre. They definitely play a huge part in the cycle of life. And farmers shouldn't worm their cows with Imvectin during the time beetles are raising their children or they will kill off the new generation of beetles.

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  15. I'll be sure to pass this info to my husband, the cattle rancher, who has been known to attend an art soiree and, while everyone is gathered 'round the refreshment table, regale them with tales of dung beetles. You have no idea how delighted I am when someone comes up to me and says "your husband is sitting back by the food table talking about $#!+".

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    1. I know I would be delighted! With us it's more "...talking about the same old $#!+".

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  16. I think the reason they dance is because, by rolling them backward, they can see where they have been and are really happy they got their shit out of there. "roll on my ball" is an old French voyageur song, really! http://michelinewalker.com/2012/02/08/en-roulant-ma-boule-a-folksong-a-voyageur-song/

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    1. Okay--I checked it out and applied my high-school French to it, and I think there's something suspicious about the rolling my ball business. I don't think it's a shit ball--I think it's something dirty.

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  17. All this time I've been assuming that if I ever had a burning question about dung beetles, you'd be the person to ask. Imagine my chagrin ("Oh, POO!", I said to myself)to find you were, until recently, as uninformed on the subject as I was. It is, however, a huge relief to know that you have done your homework, anticipating my future needs (should they arise), and that I can go right on assuming I know of an expert if I need one. There could have been sleepless nights involved, but it's all OK now. *Whew*

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    1. The whole trick to being considered knowledgeable is to be knowledgeable a minute before the other person is. I'm here for you.

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    2. Yep, that's how my high school Latin teacher taught Laatin.

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    3. ...and maybe that's why the spelling came out like that.

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  18. Murr, darling.....a fascinating and charming dissertation.....I happen to be very partial to beetles and Dung beetles in particular ever since since Gerald Durrell introduced me to them in his marvelous book, "My Family and Other Animals". If you haven't read it, you should.....it is as funny as you are.

    However, I have replayed your video several times and am convinced that the beetle is not dancing on the dung ball, but, indeed, checking out the lay of the land and the direction in which he needs to go after many feet or yards of propelling the ball backward with hind feet. Now that I think about it....even if he were pushing it forward with his front feet he would still have to climb up occasionally to see where he was going.

    Gawd.....Why am I speculating about this as if it really mattered??? You simply bewitch me.

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    1. Oh well sure. THAT beetle is checking things out, because he's the scout beetle, but all the beetles coming up behind are dancing.

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  19. Have you been reading Franz Kafka again? "The Metamorphosis" maybe? Elaine M.

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    1. This is why I am never going to be the protagonist of a depressing German novel. No one writes about being turned into a dung beetle.

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  20. I'm with you, Murr. Anyone looking at a dung beetle rolling his little ball 'o poo along and then looking up at the sun rolling across the sky, and making a link between the two, well, you're right. That's just poetry. Khepri was the result: old dung beetle head himself. And they went one better and made him a god of transformation! Well hey, you've got this beetle who turns poo into a neonatal centre and cafeteria--what might a god not do with a ball of sun?

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  21. I wish I were a male Mormon so that I can die and get to be the god of my own planet, and then I'd make everyone call me Old Dung Beetle Head.

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  22. Science classes would have held my attention had my teachers explained information as well as you do, Murr.

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    1. Teaching would have been cool, but mailman was fine too.

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  23. Thank you Murr. I have had a crappy day and this post was just what I needed. I may get up and do a wobbly dance soon.

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  24. If you can't find your own ball to dance on, dance on someone else's!

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  25. Put a square little moustache on the beetle and the Egyptian symbolology thingy would make a nice neo-Nazi emblem. (Most of them are excellent shit-wallowers, dwellers and eaters as well). Back in Ohio, we called them doodlebugs - probably because of the trail (doodle) they left in the dirt, with their heavier-than-dust dungballs. Thanks for another enlightening lesson on the diverse sources and uses of manure. Always a scatological pleaure!

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  26. Hoo Ra! Indeeeeed. Old McDungball had a farm... I kept waiting for the political twist, but this was pure, crap science!

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  27. As an aside, I would like to say I have spent many moments admiring the gorgeous, irridescent shells of the many dung beetles I have rescued from the water troughs around the barn. We have provided a veritable smorgasbord of tasty cow and horse treats for them but invariably some of them bumble into the water and drown before I can get to them. They also have the cutest little orange antennas with little fuzzy balls on their tips. I know, I know, not much to entertain one on the farm...but I can still see why the Egyptians admired them so.

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    1. Not much? How much more entertainment does a body need?

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  28. Fascinating. I once made up a bedtime story for my daughter involving a dung beetle even though technically I knew nothing about them. Made me want to turn it into a children's book.

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  29. Those balls look like truffles. They do.

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    1. Nobody knows the Truffles I've seen.

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  30. If I recall correctly, dung beetle balls were considered by the Egyptians to be good contraceptive tools. If used appropriately. Imagine this guy trying to sweet-talk his gal into using them in. . . . I don't think I actually want to say much more. Though I'm sure you can build a nice little story around this "fact," can't you, Murr.

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    1. Not while I'm trying to imagine I didn't read it, I can't.

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  31. I have just tripped over your blog... and indeed your research into the life and style of the dung beetle - and its dancing - was engrossing. I have never learned so much in so short a time.

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    1. Stick around! Sometimes there'll be a real long piece with no useful information in it whatsoever.

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  32. Mr. Charleston is correct. Lacking a TV we also had Dung Derby Days, and Dung Beetle obstacle courses (Beetles were plentiful around the cow feeders). They endured a lot of frustration, but at some point (after we'd put a stick in their path for the 20th time), they sit on top of their creation, waiting for us to go away. We never knew where they were rolling their dung balls. (We didn't have that much patience to wait for them to get there). Thanks for filling in the knowledge gaps. Now I know I won't be awakened with this mystery.

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    1. I don't remember ever seeing it, and I'm short enough to have gotten a good view. Pretty sure if I'd noticed them when I was a kid, I'd have followed them all the way. I sure would now.

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  33. Murr, I scrolled down here to the 63rd place very quickly cause I just had to tell you I can't believe this post! So happens I'm actually painting a picture of this very beetle right this very instant! How coinkidincal! I love that so much I'm doing the shit ball dance!! Actually, I'm doing a series of paintings about animals that have some myth about them in our humandom.

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    1. Hopefully this link will work. Here's the finished painting entered into my blog:
      http://www.cowango.com/accidentaltruths/2012/02/19/a-mighty-sun-god/

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    2. I love how you got our sun beetle to shine!

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  35. All you lovers of dung beetles will frown in my direction, because one of the "kids" (his vet's term, not mine) is a traditional muncher of said beetles. I find him a ground beetle now and then, and the hunt-and-pounce is on. So do I have to buy him a cow? I sense certain disadvantages in our suburban backyard.

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