Animal weaponry; an evolutionary arms race from elephants with great imposing tusks and kudu bulls with magnificent spiralling horns, to the array of scorpions with menacing pincers and venomous tails. Examples of animal weaponry and armament abound throughout the natural world. These animals are in a continuous evolutionary arms race, either between predator and prey or between members of the same species competing for food and reproductive rights. Animals with greater armaments will likely have more opportunities to reproduce. They pass on their superior genes to their offspring which fuels the race for bigger and more extensive weaponry.

Elephant Tusker River JT

So often when people think of armoury they think of large animals like elephants or rhino who carry big tusks or horns. There are however many species of animals, large and small, that have developed weaponry to defend themselves.

Doug Emlen, a professor of biology at the University of Montana, describes many of these examples in a recent book “Animal weapons: The Evolution of Battle”. He discusses why certain animals have evolved very elaborate weapons while others have not. One group of animals which really stood out in his research for their extreme weaponry are dung beetles.

rhino beetle

A rhino beetle, known as one of Africa’s little five, photographed in a human hand. It is quite remarkable how large the horn is in comparison to the body size of this little creature, showing just how much evolutionary effort has been put into developing a weapon.

Here at Londolozi, and across Southern Africa, the dung beetle is often discussed for its ecological importance and intriguing methods of navigation, but not often for the extensive weaponry that many of the less conspicuous species exhibit. Many species of dung beetles have multiple protruding horns and extensive battle armaments that often grotesquely make up a third of their body size. The extent of these horns when compared proportionately to their body size is completely mind blowing. Two such horned species which occur here at Londolozi are the trident dung beetle and the three horned dung beetle. The more commonly seen ball rolling dung beetles (telecoprids), which often provide guests with hours of great viewing pleasure lack the weaponry of the above mentioned species, which begs the question: “Why”?

Trident Beetle

A trident beetle, one of the horned beetles found on Londolozi, that has developed armoury to improve its reproductive chances.

Generally with the ball rolling species, battles will occur out in the open.  The use of a horn will be of no advantage here against multiple opponents and so they rather spend their energy on being lighter and less encumbered to avoid confrontation. The species which tunnel and burrow in the soil beneath the dung (paracoprids) are the ones which have evolved the greatest arsenal of weaponry. This is because certain conditions are present to promote this arms race. In these tunnels, males will have to face each other one-on–one as there is only space for one beetle at a time. Emlen emphasises that these tunnel duels are consistent and predictable, which is the recipe for the evolution of such extreme armaments. The beetle with the smaller weapons will get pushed out of the burrow and leave, if not severely injured. While the male with the larger weapons is left with all reproductive rights. Their offspring will match their parents in weapon size, if not outdoing them with chance gene mutations, taking the race even further.

dung-beetle

The better-known ball rolling species of dung beetle that fights above ground. Because the battle for balls happens out in the open, these animals have evolved to remain small and light so that they are more mobile. As a result, they do not have the same extensive weaponry as some of the other species.

Thousands of these one-on-one duels take place every day under the rhino middens and other dung scattered all around the bushveld. There is, however, a great cost to animals for bearing such extensive weaponry which can eventually end the arms race. For the dung beetles above, the horns can make up 30% of a male’s total weight. With these beetles, much of their energy is focused on horn growth at the expense of other organs such as eyes and reproductive parts. Emlen explains that it gets to a point when horns become so costly that only a select few can afford them, and once this happens, the sole option left for the rest of the males is to “cheat”. Many of the same species, who cannot compete due to smaller weaponry, have developed a strategy of their own. They will build their own tunnels to bypass the larger horned males and mate with females undetected. Instead of spending all that extra energy on producing large weapons they can grow bigger testes to produce more sperm. Ultimately this could actually push the heavily armed beetles out of the gene pool which seems counter intuitive.

P_vindex_watercolor1

A cross section view of what goes on below the ground with some of the burrowing dung beetle species.

To quote Doug Emlen, “But much as duels necessarily create arms races, arms races necessarily create cheaters — and cheaters can win, bringing an end to the race.” There is in effect a tipping point where no more advantage is gained from having bigger weapons. I personally don’t see this so much as cheating as I do a mechanism to bring about balance or create a new evolutionary path for these species. It is extraordinary to think how many of these micro stories and battles are playing out around us in the bushveld all the time and yet are seldom noticed. Just one more reason why we should slow down and look for the extraordinary in even the littlest things around us.

Filed under Wildlife

About the Author

Nick Sims

Field Guide

Nick joined Londolozi from the bright lights of Johannesburg, where he had been working in finance before deciding to make the big move to the bush at the start of 2015. Nick is a hard man to ruffle, and there is purpose in ...

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7 Comments

on Amazing Animals: Dung Beetles and their Extreme Weaponry

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Jan
Guest

Thanks for sharing this inforation, very informative

eunice rogers
Guest

Attention owner/management of Londolozi, keep this guy around. From these writings he sounds like a real catch for your guide team. I’ve been on countless game drives over the years and no one shared this kind of knowledge. Thanks!

Sharon Blackburn
Guest

Fascinating! Proves that the stories of the small creatures are as interesting as those of the large ones. It’s why every game drive has new discoveries, big and small! Thanks for sharing this information. Of course, my first reaction was, “what boys won’t do in order to win the girls..!”

gerard gaynor
Guest

interesting take on things_Thanku!

Dave Mills
Guest

Very well written, Nick, and great information as well. Thanks.

Norberto Dellê
Guest

Good article Nick. Thank you.

Jill Larone
Guest

Very interesting Nick. Thank you!

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