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Sky compass orientation:

from neurons to behaviour

Researchers looking at dung beetles

Understanding how sensory stimuli generate relevant behaviours in real time is a central goal of neuroscience in general, and of this project in particular. South African dung beetles navigate with a celestial compass when moving across the savannah. This compass is so sensitive that the beetles can rely on the sun, the moon, the dim polarization pattern around the moon or even the Milky Way for orientation, an achievement that is so far unequalled in the animal kingdom. These large beetles are not only perfectly suited for behavioural studies of a biological compass system, but also for characterizing the neuronal architecture that support this impressive behaviour. This presents an attractive opportunity to study the full mechanism of a highly sensitive sky compass system - from neurons to behaviour - in one single species.

This multi-level project aim to reveal how different factors support and sharpen the performance of a biological celestial compass system using variety of techniques and approaches, including behavioural, electrophysiological and anatomical approaches.

Some of the current research topics within this project involve:

  • Polarized light orientation in dim light
  • The neuronal substrate of compass orientation
  • Path-integration in a desert beetle

Researchers at the IgNoble Prize cermony

Page Manager:
Dung beetle on dung ball looking at the Milky Way


  • Marcus Byrne, University of the Witwatersrand,
  • Clarke Scholtz, University of Pretoria, South Africa
  • James Harrison, Zoology Curator of The Life Sciences Museum and Biodiversity Centre, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
  • Basil el Jundi, University of Würzburg, Germany

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