By the Light of the Silvery Moon …Print
So go the dung beetles
By Brian Doyle
January 10, 2014
Looking through some magazines and journals that have piled up on my desk unread, I found this item in a 2013 issue of Current Biology: dung beetles use the Milky Way to navigate on moonless nights.
The cool news: a team of international scientists has discovered that the beetles, which roll up little balls of dung for later delectation, roll their balls away from the redolent pile as fast as possible, to avoid other greedy thieving dung beetles. They roll their balls in straight lines on moonlit nights; on cloudy nights they roll their balls along irregular lines. Scientists suspected visual orientation in the beetles, and upon experimentation discovered that even on moonless nights the beetles travel in straight lines, using the light of the Milky Way to steer.
The even cooler news: “When the beetles had tiny visors taped onto their heads to block their view of the night sky, they spent their time wandering aimlessly.” See, the tiny visors—that’s where my mind goes. Someone designed those. Someone made them. Someone installed them, beetle by beetle. Someone probably had to sternly lecture the teenage beetles that yes, they had to wear their visors even if all the other beetles will say you look like a praying mantis, and if you don’t want to wear your visor, fine, then you can stay home and not roll dung tonight at all, see if I care. That’s just fine. It’s your decision. We all make choices.
But someone made those infinitesimally small visors for beetles. Isn’t that glorious? A human being. One of us. Someone with creativity, humor, silly verve. Surely that someone, those someones, are serious investigators, and they hope their work will yield fascinating new data on how animals of all kinds sense and steer by such things as starlight; perhaps their work will lead to the discovery that we do not have five senses, but 50, many of them so subtle and ingrained and ancient that we never even knew they were in us; but isn’t it also sweet and refreshing, somehow, to know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that those scientists from Sweden and South Africa must have, at some point, laughed themselves silly at the first drawings of beetle visors, or the first time they tried to reason and wheedle with a reluctant dung beetle, to just try it, just this once, please?
Brian Doyle is the editor of the University of Portland’s Portland magazine and the author of many books, most recently the novel Chicago.