Life and death on a roll: dung beetles and honey badgers
Sometimes we come upon curious things while working in the field. It happened a few weeks
ago when we noticed strange looking spherical shapes made of mud next to a hole in the middle of a rhino midden. Upon closer inspection, they turned out to be dung beetle dung balls that had been dug out by a honey badger in search of a juicy meal.
Dung beetles make and then lay their eggs in these balls, which they then bury. In the wet season, it is common to see the beetles rolling their dung balls along the road in search of a good place to bury them. This also results in the balls getting covered in layers of mud that once dried out form hard protective casings around the balls. The eggs later hatch and the larvae then develop and grow inside the balls, feeding on the dung. After about 2 weeks, the larvae turn into pupae and adult beetles emerge 4 to 6 weeks later.
An interesting example of the ecological impact of dung beetles comes from Australia. When cattle were introduced there, the native dung beetles continued using marsupial droppings as they had always done, and not the foreign cattle droppings, which kept accumulating and resulted in a major increase in fly numbers. Furthermore, much of the dung dried up, so their nutrients did not recycle back into the soils. Eventually, dung beetles from South Africa and Hawaii were imported to ease the problem. As they consumed the dung produced by cattle, the grasslands became more productive again.
A pair of dung beetles rolling their dung ball down the road on Ongava
And what about the honey badger you’ll ask? Well, among other things (including honey, of course), this carnivore is very fond of juicy, protein-rich dung beetles. They don’t have teeth, claws or quills to defend themselves, and simply have to be dug out to obtain an easy meal! Whether this badger found what it was looking for, we couldn’t tell, but judging by the number of balls that had been dug up, it probably had!