Humans, birds, and seals have each been revealed to use this technique, but this would be the first example of an insect to do so.
Dr. Marie Dacke, a researcher at the Lund University in Sweden, who recently had her report published in the journal, Current Biology, told BBC News, “The dung beetles are not necessarily rolling with the Milky Way or 90 degrees to it, they can go at any angle to this band of light in the sky. They use it as a reference.”
The beetles, who feed on animal dung that they create into a ball and then roll away on to a safe haven, avoid their prey by rolling in a straight line which ensures they don’t become lost and travel back to a dung heap where other creatures might have gathered.
Scientists were perplexed at how they did this in dark, with Dacke stating, “Even on clear, moonless nights, many dung beetles still manage to orientate along straight paths. This led us to suspect that the beetles exploit the starry sky for orientation – a feat that had, to our knowledge, never been demonstrated in an insect.”
They performed field tests in a South African game reserve, which proved that they were unable to roll their dung balls in overcast conditions. For these tests, the insects were fitted with tiny cardboard caps which prevented them from seeing the sky.
The journal, Current Biology, added, “This finding represents the first convincing demonstration for the use of the starry sky for orientation in insects and provides the first documented use of the Milky Way for orientation in the animal kingdom.”