Driving around with my friend and tracker, Jerry Hambana, he drew my attention to how few dung beetles there have been over the last few weeks.
At the height of summer (the time of year dung beetles are most active) we are usually having to swerve around heaps of dung writhing with the insects so as not to crush them.
But oddly enough, the roads have been devoid of these ecologically important decomposers.
After discussing it with Jerry we both had an inkling that the lack of dung beetles had something to do with the exorbitant amount of rain Londolozi has received lately.
In search of an explanation I immediately turned to Google but came up with nothing definitive. So as an alternative I asked guides and trackers from Londolozi as well as people at other game reserves where I knew large rainfall had occurred whether they too had noticed a drop in dung beetle activity and if so, why they thought it was happening.
Everybody confirmed that fewer dung beetles were being seen as of late and had similar theories which has helped shed some light.
With all the rain we have had, it is possible that many of the dung piles which dung beetles are attracted to have been washed away not allowing the beetles to do their job. This has been noticeable whilst being caught in a downpour out in the bush and seeing the roads literally turning into rivers. Another factor could be that even if a dung pile is found, the ground as well as the dung is just too wet to roll effectively. If you have ever watched a dung beetle craft a ball of dung, you will have noticed how crucial the loose substrate is that the dung has landed on, in making an intact spherical ball that doesn’t fall apart. Where as in these saturated conditions, the sodden soil is unlikely to stick to the beginnings of a rolled dung ball, nor is the dung going to be firm enough to keep its shape.
The other fascinating explanation could have something to do with the dung beetles navigation system being obscured. Studies show that dung beetles use the sun, other skylight cues such as the angle of light when the sun is obscured, the moon and even the Milky Way galaxy to navigate their way from a freshly located dung pile back to their intended housing, feeding or breeding spot. This is backed by evidence that the percentage error of a dung beetle orientating itself is almost doubled when the sun is at its apex around midday as there are fewer points of reference. This leads to a noticeable decrease in dung beetle activity around midday. With there being such dense cloud cover for extended periods of time during this rainy spell it is possible that dung beetles go into a state of inactivity so as to conserve energy, rather than walking around in disoriented circles.
I find observations such as this one – that cannot be proven with absolute certainty – highly intriguing because it forces you into a place of questioning using evidence as well as your imagination. It also makes you look at your surroundings from a different perspective and appreciate how something such as a dung beetle is as affected by the elements just as much as us, if not more.
As the sun comes out in the next few weeks (hopefully) I’ll be keeping an eye on the dung beetle activity to see if our theory is correct.