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Jul
11

dung beetles

Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of evolution. I buy into the idea of macroevolutionary dynamics and that creatures can adapt based on opportunities in their environments. Having said this … what the fuck is with the dung beetle?!

What kind of lazy fuck is this? They have legs and they have wings. The fucking things can fly and yet they choose to live on shit. That was the best they could up with… to eat the shit of other animals. Actually they don’t even eat it, they use their mouthparts to squeeze and suck the juice from the shit, a liquid full of micro-organisms and other nutrients. Back in the day there had to be the first beetle that said “Fuck it. I’m so lazy that I’m not even going to bother looking around for a good niche. I’m just going to eat shit for a living”. After that not one generation took stock of their situation and said “I have legs, I have wings, I could eat something else. I’m not going to eat shit anymore!”

The first beetles were around with the dinosaurs 230 million years ago. With the advent of flowering plants about 65 million years ago, speciation in beetles occurred at an astronomical rate as they began to exploit the rapidly evolving angiosperms. Or in laymen’s terms, this was the dung beetles ‘money shot’. Not to split hairs, but even within this group of lazy fucks there are levels of lazy fuckness. You have some, known as Rollers, who actually make a ball of shit and roll it away. Some of them then bury this ball o’crap and it actually helps improve nutrient cycling and soil structure. For instance, a group of scientists, who must have really been the envy of their department, watched an elephant take a giant elephant dump and total of 16,000 dung beetles of various shapes and sizes had it completely eaten or buried in under 2 hours. Then there are the white trash dung beetles, known as Dwellers, who don’t do anything but live in the shit. The kings of the scumbags are the Kleptocoprophages. They actually steal the shit balls from other dung beetles. I would imagine that if you’ve just spent the last 20 minutes making a giant ball made of shit the last thing you expect is for someone to steal it. Would it even occur to you to keep an eye on it? Getting back to evolutionary aspect of this, these beetles keep sinking lower and lower into insect expectations! At what point do these beetles look around as say “What the fuck are we doing?! We’re eating shit here!” You’re telling me that not one of these little guys at some point has passed a dropped Twinkie on the ground, had a taste and suddenly called everyone over and said “You’ve GOT to try this. It doesn’t taste at all like shit!”

Let me tell you briefly about the Bombardier beetle (Brachinus spp.) just to give you an idea of what other beetles have been up to while the dung beetle has been eating shit for millions of years. They have developed the ability to inject an explosive mixture of hydroquinone, hydrogen peroxide plus several potent catalysts into a reaction chamber in the abdomen. Catalase breaks down the hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen gas. Peroxidase oxidizes hydroquinone into benzoquinone. The mixture of chemicals and enzymes volatilizes instantly upon contact with the air, generating a puff of “smoke”” and an audible popping sound. This caustic flatulence is totally controlled by the beetle, otherwise it might accidentally blow up its rear end. The explosive discharge apparently discourages predators, either by chemical irritation, heat or repugnance. The temperature of the explosive mixture of gasses and fluids is over 100 degrees Celsius, the boiling point of water. Now THAT’S a can-do attitude. This beetle goes where it wants to and the other insects get the fuck out the way. You don’t see the Bombardier beetle eating shit, I’ll tell you that much.

I’m not going to bore you with the evolutionary exploits of the Meloidae family of beetles or the bring-your-lunchbox-to-work attitude of the short circuit beetles (Scobicia declivis). My point is simple. What the fuck is with the dung beetle? Actually it’s not so much a point as… um… well… did you know that a “Spanish Fly” is not a fly at all but a beetle? I’ve changed my mind about not boring you with information about the Meloidae family of beetles. Within that family is the blister beetle and in particular the body fluid of the European blister beetle contains cantharidin, a substance that causes severe irritation and blistering of skin. This chemical is very sensitive to mucous membranes and is the active ingredient of “Spanish-fly”. Be warned though, although it has been used as a counterirritant, its use as an aphrodisiac is very unwise unless you are raising livestock or chickens. I learned that the hard way but that’s another long, dull story.

To wrap up. Dung beetles… what the fuck is with them?

 

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