One afternoon we left South Africa’s River Lodge for our afternoon safari and headed into the southern parts of the reserve to locate some of the plains game animals that are usually in big herds on Mashutu plains. Did you know Kapama has over 40 species of mammals? After about half an hour into the drive, Michael my tracker pointed something out to us on the ground. Any guides first impression might have been that it was one of the tracks of the Big 5. However, to my amazement he was pointing out a dung beetle with a dung sphere as big as a tennis ball. Would you believe that was not the most impressive thing? On top of this mammoth ball, was his female counterpart.
I would estimate the dung ball to be around +- 200grams or even more. I did not want to pick the ball up and disturb his rhythm. As we watched, the scene became more comical. He was struggling to not only push the ball but also push it up a small hill. He would move his boulder about halfway up this hill, lose strength and then sadly roll back down into the road again. I heard soft chatter from my guests with an occasionally Aww! each time it happened. After a few minutes of watching his patience, persistence and perseverance, I was so tempted to get out and give the poor guy a hand but I certainly did not want to interfere with nature so we left him to do all the hard work. After trying for more than 5 minutes he managed to push the dung ball all the way up and over the small hill and disappeared off into the bushes.
Many of the guests didn’t understand the impact and significance of what we had all just witnessed. I informed them with dung beetles when it’s a big ball and there’s another dung beetle attached to that ball, that it is a female who has chosen her mate as the one for her and her egg will be on the inside of the ball. With the egg being on the inside, ensures that it would eventually have a food source and eat its way out and be an adult dung beetle.
This specific dung beetle must have been a very brave and strong character as some dung beetles will prefer to steal the bigger and better balls from other males and take it as their own. If the eggs and larvae are already placed inside the ball, the “thief” will eat all of them. He truly took on a mighty challenge of trying to get this huge dung ball to a safe place.
Some interesting facts about dung beetles:
· Dung beetles have well-developed wings and six legs which help them dig tunnels and collect & roll dung.
· Dung beetles are very strong animals and can carry a weight 50 times heavier than their body weight (This is clearly evident from the size this male is pushing around)
· Dung beetles are solitary little things which meet with other beetles only during mating season.
· Majority of dung beetles consume dung produced by herbivores.
· Studies show that dung beetles use their dung balls to cool off. During the hotter periods of the day, it has been observed that they will climb on top of their dung balls to give their feet a break from the hot ground. When scientists put silicone “shoes” on the dung beetles, it was observed that they took fewer breaks and managed to push their ball for longer. Thermal imaging shows that the dung balls are considerably cooler than the surrounding environment, most likely due to their moisture content.
One thing I always like to tell my guests whenever I happen to find a dung beetle is, if it weren’t for dung beetles, dung would harden and cover the ground. Grass and other plants would find it very difficult to grow. They also assist in fertilizing the ground by breaking up and burying the dung.
This was a unique sighting for me. When out on safari it is not always about the Big 5 and the most popular animals that can be fascinating and interesting. Even the smallest of creatures can make a game drive a wonderful experience.
Story and photos by: Ebenezer Rhode – River Lodge