Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Christmas beetle

With its iridescent red and green back, it seems appropriate to write a blog entry at this time of the year about Phanaeus igneus, our local dung beetle. The first time I came across one I was enchanted, turning it upside down and wondering at its brilliant colors. I hope I washed my hands well, but I don't remember.

I only realized how it made its living when I noticed a pile of dog dung gently rocking, seemingly of its own accord. It was both fascinating and, since I didn't know what to expect, distinctly alarming. Gingerly poking the pile with a stick yielded the reason: a dung beetle had tunneled underneath and was dragging the contents down the hole. A few days later all that was left was dirt from the hole, and the area looked like an old ants nest.

Dung beetles fall into three categories: "Tunnelers," like P. igneus; "rollers," which roll balls of dung; and "dwellers" that simply live inside a dung pile. Dung is either used as food or as a place to lay eggs. The scarab revered by the Ancient Egyptians was a roller, a piece of information I'm sure you needed to know.

So next time you're down on your luck, you know to be grateful you're not a dung beetle. Even so, we'd all be climbing over piles of poop if it weren't for these beetles, so I guess we should all be grateful to them.

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