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The pure path-integration system of homing dung beetles

Desert dung beetles continually calculate the distance and direction they will have to walk home to return to their nest. How do they get this information, and where is it processed in the brain? And why do some of these beetles walk in a unique "gallop" unlike any other insect on the planet?

Several groups of African desert dung beetles face a challenging navigation task: They live in a semi-permanent burrow as central place foragers. These homing dung beetles repeatedly walk away from their burrow in search of food and then return with their forage, usually in a straight line. To solve this difficult task, they perform path integration, a navigational strategy that involves calculating a constantly updated "home vector" that informs the animal about the exact distance and direction of its burrow at any time. For this strategy to work, the beetle relies on a sky compass to measure direction and a "step-counter" to measure distance. Like ball-rolling dung beetles, but unlike any other path-integrating insect ever studied, they completely ignore landmarks. This pure path integration behaviour, combined with the beetles' robust behaviour and large size, makes them a great model to study the neuronal substrate of step-counting and path integration.

Two different species of dung beetles

We have also recently discovered that some of these beetles walk in completely different way to any other insect ever observed, a unique "galloping" gait. Has this unique gait evolved to provide a more accurate distance estimate when the beetles walk on slippery desert sand dunes?

The ultimate aim of this project is to develop dung beetles as a model to investigate the neuronal substrate of path integration, particularly the integration of direction (compass) and distance (odometer) information in the brain.

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Close up on dung beetle

Collaborators

  • Marcus Byrne, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
  • Clarke Scholtz, University of Pretoria, South Africa