One's trash is another's treasure
by Ranger, Victoria Craddock
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25 October 2023
MalaMala Game Reserve is known
for its diverse wildlife, reliable Big Five sightings and stunning landscapes, but in summer, it is also home to an astonishing array of dung beetles. These remarkable insects play a crucial role in maintaining the ecological balance of this habitat, making them an integral part of the numerous ecosystems that thrive on MalaMala. With the advent of spring comes a resurgence of these gigantic arthropods. Let’s explore the fascinating world of the dung beetles who call MalaMala home.
Dung beetles, scientifically classified under the family Scarabaeidae, are renowned for their role as nature’s recyclers. They help break down animal dung into smaller particles, returning vital nutrients to the soil, and aerating it in the process. This benefits plant growth and reduces the risk of diseases spreading through dung. Aside from their role in nutrient cycling and soil health, dung beetles also help control fly populations by removing breeding sites in animal dung. On MalaMala, numerous large herbivores generate a staggering amount of dung (to put this in perspective, an adult elephant bull excretes about 175kg of dung each day!).
There are around 8000 recorded species of dung beetles worldwide and approximately 780 species in Southern Africa. Of the 780 species, we can classify the types on MalaMala into four categories:
- Roller Dung Beetles (Telecoprids): Roller dung beetles are some of the most well-known dung beetle species. While out on game drive, this is the type that you’ll most likely encounter. These beetles are known for their remarkable ability to shape dung into perfectly round balls, which they then roll away from the dung pile to bury for breeding and feeding purposes.
- Tunneler Dung Beetles (Paracoprids): Tunneler dung beetles differ from rollers in their behaviour. They prefer to dig tunnels beneath dung piles and bury the dung within the soil to serve as a larval food supply. These beetles are often smaller and less conspicuous than their rolling counterparts.
- Dwellers (Endocoprids): Dwellers are another type of dung beetle we find. Unlike rollers and tunnelers, dwellers do not actively bury dung. Instead, they live and breed in the dung directly where it falls. Some species are very small and can be hard to spot, while others have striking colours.
- Robbers (Kleptocoprids): These beetles have a rather sinister strategy. Instead of collecting fresh dung, they steal dung balls from the telecoprids, in which they will lay their own eggs. Once they have laid their eggs in the stolen ball, they will then bury the dung, saving themselves the trouble of rolling their own. It’s a cunning strategy that reduces the effort they need to invest in their reproductive activities.
At first glance, dung beetles might not be the most charismatic species on MalaMala. Still, once you spend time studying their antics and invariably watching your ranger get smacked in the face by one on your way back to camp, they quickly become a highlight of a summer safari!