Book Review – Dance of the Dung Beetles: Their Role in our Changing World

Nov 1, 2019 | Commentary

By Adam Cruise – PhD candidate: Stellenbosch University, South Africa

This is an excellent and timeous book given that we currently face an unprecedented rate of faunal extinction, many of which are critically important to the planet but yet to be fully understood. Dance of the Dung Beetles tells the story of the mind-boggling but, as least to the public, little-known dung beetle.

This book weaves together a fascinating history of dung beetles, of which there are 6,000 described species. It explains that that not only are dung beetles central to the health of global ecology but also that they have been crucial to the development of human culture and belief.

Yet, this book comes with a dire warning: while we modern humans know precious little about them, we do now know that without these little beetles, none of us would be alive. Not only are dung beetles highly effective exhumers of the millions of tons of excrement dumped on the surface of the earth, but they are vital for the continued well-being and ultimate survival of all life on earth, including our own.

Authors entomologist Marcus Byrne and literature specialist Helen Lunn combine their expertise to show that while essentially ignored or unknown by the general public in modern times, the importance of dung beetles was not lost on our ancestors. Dung beetles have been worshipped as gods and deities in many ancient cultures, worn as jewellery by respectable Victorian ladies, and painted by famous artists. Scientists such as Charles Darwin and Carl Linnaeus also practically worshipped the little dung beetle. In fact, Linnaeus even named the first species he described as sacred, Sacrabaeus sacer).

Naturalists had already figured out that dung beetles are crucial in fertilising the soil and cleansing pastures of unwanted and foul-smelling dung. Now we even know that dung beetles navigate by the stars and have an important connection with elephants and other herbivores in dispersing and breaking down the tons of dung dropped by them. The great forests and savannahs of Africa are fertilised by legions of dung beetles rolling, dispersing and burying dung. The rolling process also scatters seeds necessary for growth and rejuvenation of vegetation. Dung beetles are found almost everywhere in the world not only in Africa. They are in the United States, Europe, the Arctic and they have even successfully colonized Australia. It only has become obvious in our own era that if we take the lowly dung beetle out of the planet’s ecosystems, we will likely see the whole earthly system collapse. Dung beetles are the foundations of much of the physical earth. Yet, despite this, nothing is being done to protect them and dung beetles are in deep trouble.

The father of modern conservation, Aldo Leopold, warned back in the 1940s that “one basic weakness in a conservation system is that most members of the land community have no economic value”. In South Africa, charismatic megafauna like lions, leopards, cheetah, giraffe, buffalo and elephants are major financial drawcards for game ranchers, trophy hunters, and wildlife-watching tourists. Consequently, these animals are preserved under the mantra “if it pays, it stays.” However, following Leopold, this is often done at the expense of the little, often unseen and unknown fauna such as dung beetles who, according to our current model of conservation (known as sustainable utilisation), have almost zero value, economic or otherwise. Dung beetles are all but disregarded by national and international policy-makers, uncared for and ignored.

Scientists are now warning of an “insectageddon” which indicates that almost all insects are being wiped off the face of the planet thanks to our overuse of pesticides for the crops that feed humans. In Europe, recent reports show that an astounding 76% of flying insects have disappeared, and the fate of the dung beetle is no different.

The importance of this beautifully illustrated and intriguing book is that it demonstrates that without dung beetles many other life forms on earth, including humans, may never have evolved. Without dung beetles and their activities, the levels of disease and faeces on the planet might have led to the demise of our race before we ever got going. Dung beetles literally move the earth beneath us, they aided in our evolutionary survival and continue to do so at absolutely no cost to us. Ultimately, we ignore them to our peril. In this age where millions of species are facing extinction thanks to our relentless expansion and pursuit of technology, Byrne and Lunn show, perhaps for the first time so dramatically and clearly, that we need to take heed of the ground beneath our feet, to understand how deeply interconnected we humans are to dung beetles and how important they are for our survival. The potential loss of these insects could see the entire life system on earth collapse.

Through the erudite pages of Dance of the Dung Beetles, Byrne and Lunn have provided us with a glimpse into the fascinating world of a creature that should once again be afforded god-like status. The dung beetle shows that the rich tapestry of life is worth preserving. For if we lose the dung beetle, we lose everything.

Dance of the Dung Beetles: Their Role in our Changing World

by Marcus Byrne and Helen Lunn. 2019. Johannesburg, Wits University Press. Price: R320. Pp.228. ISBN 978-1-77614-234-7 (paperback) 978-1-77614-25-4 (Web PDF) 978-1-77614-236-1 (EPUB) 978-1-77614-274-3