Great Balls of Dung

We have strong links with Addo Elephant National Park because of Anna's research on the elephants there. Moving to Phillipskop, we knew that finding elephants on the reserve was never going to happen but we were surprised to find that we did have another of Addo's famous inhabitants: the Cape flightless dung beetle (Circellium bacchus). Addo is one of the strongholds for this large beetle with its rather peculiar habit for bringing up its offspring. Anyone visiting the park can't fail to spot the road signs warning that dung beetles having right of way. Until moving here, I had believed that Addo was the only stronghold for these beetles, but it appears they are more widespread along the southern Cape coast, it is just that their populations have become small and isolated elsewhere (a feature not helped by their flightless nature).

Cape flightless dung beetle (Circellium bacchus) showing comparison of size to human finger

Cape flightless dung beetle (Circellium bacchus) is one of the largest dung beetles in the world.

Male and female Cape flightless dung beetle (Circellium bacchus) on dung ball.

The male and female meet to mate on the dung ball, but unusually the female does all the work.

The Cape flightless dung beetle (Circellium bacchus) is one of the largest dung beetles known anywhere in the world. They can reach up to 50mm long, though are often only half that size. They are dependent upon the dung of large herbivores for breeding and eating and for a time it was thought that only elephant dung would do. Hence, the contraction in their range was connected with the reduction in the range of elephants and consequently Addo became known as their last stronghold. While elephant dung is clearly important, other dung will do, even cow dung, as evidenced by the dung beetles on our own reserve. In most species of dung beetle, the male does most of the work in constructing the balls of dung for breeding. However, the flightless dung beetle is possibly unique in that the males take no part in the forming, rolling or burying of the breeding ball. He follows some distance behind until the work is done, carries out his breeding and then leaves the female to do the work of staying with the ball to protect the young. Male chauvinism is still well and truly alive in the world of beetles.

The dung beetles on our reserve were spotted after a group of cattle came wandering through, leaving their obligatory piles of dung. It is not clear what the dung beetles here feed on normally as the cattle are not permanent fixtures. We have small antelope, common duiker and Cape grysbok, as well as scrub hares. We have spotted the occasional midden around the reserve but dung is certainly not obviously evident and we have not as yet seen any elephant, buffalo or rhino, which are its preferred dung producing creatures. Maybe we will have to set up a dung beetle feeding station, with regular supplies of fresh cowpats from the local farmers, to keep our population healthy and help conserve this impressive beetle.

Cape flightless dung beetle (Circellium bacchus) making dung ball from cowpat.

Cape flightless dung beetle using cow dung to make its dung ball for breeding.

(If you are interested in reading in more depth about these fascinating dung beetles, then the scientific paper by Kryger et al. in Tropical Zoology 19: 18-207 (2006) is quite readable.)

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