FLIGHTLESS DUNG BEETLES

One does not have to drive very far in the Addo Elephant National Park before coming across signs warning one to watch out for the dung beetles.

These flightless dung beetles are among the largest in the world and have come to be known as the Addo Flightless Dung Beetle (Circellium bacchus) on account of there being a large population of the species in this national park. Here they play an important role in the ecosystem by helping to decompose the piles of dung deposited by wild animals, especially that of elephant, buffalo and kudu, although outside of the park they utilise the dung of stock animals such as sheep and cattle. Another important aspect of their activity is that the beetles assist in fertilising the ground by breaking up and burying the dung.

Dung beetles are reliant on dung both for their own nutrition and that of their larvae. Quite understandably, they prefer fresh dung from which to form their brood balls. This is done by the female, which moves it away using her powerful hind legs, while the male follows behind. His only role is to mate once the brood ball has been pushed into a suitable hole.

It is amazing to watch these beetles at work, for they often push a ball around far greater than their own weight using only their back legs – convert the size ratio to human terms and one realises that the flightless dung beetle must be extremely strong!

As you can see from the pictures below, dung beetles encounter a number of obstacles whilst rolling their dung balls off the roads in order to bury their balls in the surrounding soil. These include the corrugated surfaces of the dirt roads as well as rocks, stones and lumps of soil.

Several of the tourist roads have been tarred over the years, which must make this onerous task a little easier – especially that of getting the balls off the road.

We need to heed the signs, heed the piles of dung in the road, and be particularly careful to heed the presence of these rare species on the road: every beetle needlessly crushed under the wheels of vehicles means a life cycle that cannot be completed!

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