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Good Reads  Insects & other Invertebrates  Insects  Beetles (Coleoptera)

Dance of the Dung Beetles Their Role in Our Changing World

By: Marcus Byrne(Author), Helen Lunn(Author)
252 pages, 24 plates with 36 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
A broad-ranging and charming introduction to the little-loved dung beetle.
Dance of the Dung Beetles
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  • Dance of the Dung Beetles ISBN: 9781776142347 Paperback Apr 2019 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1 week
Price: £29.99
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

In this sweeping history of more than 3000 years, beginning with Ancient Egypt, scientist Marcus Byrne and writer Helen Lunn capture the diversity of dung beetles and their unique behaviour patterns. Dung beetles' fortunes have followed the shifts from a world dominated by a religion that symbolically incorporated them into some of its key concepts of rebirth, to a world in which science has largely separated itself from religion and alchemy. With over 6000 species found throughout the world, these unassuming but remarkable creatures are fundamental to some of humanity's most cherished beliefs and have been ever present in religion, art, literature, science and the environment. They are at the centre of current gene research, play an important role in keeping our planet healthy, and some nocturnal dung beetles have been found to navigate by the starry skies. Outlining the development of science from the point of view of the humble dung beetle is what makes this charming story of immense interest to general readers and entomologists alike.



Chapter One When the dung beetle wore golden shoes
Chapter Two Crawling out of the darkness
Chapter Three Joining the dots
Chapter Four Colonising insects
Chapter Five Of elephants and dung beetles
Chapter Six Tribes with human attributes
Chapter Seven Design construction first
Conclusion: `What a wonderful world'

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Customer Reviews (1)

  • A broad-ranging and charming introduction
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 23 Jan 2020 Written for Paperback

    Having just reviewed The Mosquito, I am continuing the theme of small things running the world. Here is another overlooked insect that literally moves mountains, doing the dirty job that nobody wants to do: the dung beetle. Entomologist Marcus Byrne has teamed up with popular science writer Helen Lunn for Dance of the Dung Beetles, a captivating and charming introduction to their cultural history, their role in the history of biology as a discipline, and some really funky contemporary research.

    Dance of the Dung Beetles is really a book in three parts. Any book that wants to give a complete introduction to the cultural and biological history of dung beetles – or scarabs – has to begin in Ancient Egypt. With its habit of moulding excrement into neat little balls being interpreted as an act of creation, and the rolling of the ball as the daily passage of the sun, dung beetles entered the Egyptian pantheon as the scarab-faced deity Khepri.

    Subsequent religions held no such fascination for the dung beetle, so the authors pick up the historical thread in the Middle Ages. Here, the first naturalists started noticing them again, in particular the Italian scholar Ulisse Aldrovandi, whose 1602 book De Animalibus Insectis (for short) described their nesting behaviour. Colonialism and trade brought vast quantities of unknown flora and fauna back to Europe, feeding a craze for curiosity cabinets to display these. A knowledge vacuum became apparent and naturalists mostly busied themselves describing and cataloguing all this diversity. It was Linneaus who would ultimately stamp his mark on this era with his binomial naming system introduced in his book Systema Naturae. Byrne & Lunn discuss how dung beetles pop up in this period in books and paintings, showing a renewed awareness and interest in them.

    This cultural history spans a good 40% of the book before the authors turn to the dung beetle’s role in the history of biological disciplines. The boom of agriculture in North America after the American Civil War in the 1860s saw a surging interest in biological pest control and the birth of the discipline of economic entomology. Although dung beetles do not attack insect pests directly, they do limit their breeding grounds by rapidly burying animal dung. Dung beetles were subsequently imported into Hawai’i and later Australia, and scientists learned important lessons on the particular habitat and food requirements of each beetle species when introductions failed. Not all dung is created equally, it seems. But where they were successful, the positive effect of dung beetles on soil health has not gone unnoticed, as witnessed by the ongoing work of, for example, Dung Beetle Solutions Australia (see also Dung Down Under).

    This leads into a very interesting if slightly off-topic chapter on elephants. Byrne & Lunn provide a short but pointed introduction to the trade in ivory (initially indigenous, then boosted by the desires of colonial powers) and the establishment of game parks. Especially on the latter, they have some interesting and outspoken opinions. A rinderpest pandemic sweeping through Africa at the end of the 19th century emptied many areas of livestock, leading to a spike in tsetse flies and accompanying sleeping sickness. Colonial governments responded by relocating whole populations, often turning the abandoned areas into game reserves, without ever considering if these areas were fit for animal populations. Byrne & Lunn highlight the clashes between newly minted and haughty conservation ecologists who had limited knowledge of, for example, elephants lording over these reserves, and the game wardens and naturalists on the ground. It is an interesting aside before they get to the link with dung beetles. It was studies in Tsavo National Park, Kenya, on dung beetles and dung producers (elephants) that moved research from single species towards ecosystems, made famous by further work by the late Ilkka Hanski (see Dung Beetle Ecology).

    Not until the last two chapters do the authors finally talk about the topics I really came here for: the fantastic contemporary research on beetle behaviour. There is the huge variety in dung processing, for not all dung beetles roll balls. There is the wild divergence in mating tactics, which is what the dung ball rolling is all about: brood provisioning. Males roll balls which are gifted to females who will lay an egg in it, providing a safe and nutritious cradle for their offspring. Some males have horns with which they defend their dung balls, others do not and engage in sneaky copulations (the topic of my own PhD research, see also Alternative Reproductive Tactics). This allows Byrne and Lunn to talk about sexual selection, evolution, and genetics and casually give some of the best concise explanations of epigenetics and gene translation and regulation I have read in a popular science book.

    And then there are the experiments that catapulted dung beetles into fame in 2013 when it turned out that some species orient themselves at night by the light of the Milky Way. This involved delightful experiments observing dung beetles rolling balls in planetariums, using polarised light filters in the field, and fitting beetles with mini-hats to prevent them from seeing the sky. I would have loved to read more about these and other experiments, and this part of the book felt too short – there must be more unusual research that could have been covered. Rather than reducing the interesting sections on cultural history, I would not have minded had the authors expanded the book as a whole, adding a few more chapters on specific biology topics.

    As far as I can tell, the only similar popular book with which Dance of the Dung Beetles competes for your attention at the moment is Call of Nature, which delights in dung more generally. That book has line drawings of many of the insect species discussed, something which this book could have profited from, though there is an extended colour plate section with excellent photos here to make up for that. For readers such as myself who want to dig deeper into the biology, there are always the edited collections Ecology and Evolution of Dung Beetles and Evolutionary Biology and Conservation of Dung Beetles. For general readers, though, this book offers a wide-ranging introduction to the fascinating dung beetle that is very hard to put down.
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Marcus Byrne is Professor in the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Science at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He has studied dung beetles for more than 30 years. Helen Lunn has a PhD in Musicology and has a wide research base. She has worked in both academic and popular writing environments.

By: Marcus Byrne(Author), Helen Lunn(Author)
252 pages, 24 plates with 36 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
A broad-ranging and charming introduction to the little-loved dung beetle.
Media reviews

"A brilliant and funny tour through mythology, evolution and the day-to-day innovations of scientific research [...] this is an entomological page-turner . 'If there were no dung beetles,' Byrne and Lunn write, 'there might have been no human race [...] They literally change the earth beneath us.' This book reveals that earthly transformation in fascinating and lucid detail."
– Bruce Beasley, professor of English at Western Washington University and award-winning poet

"Biology and history dance with the scarabs in this beautiful book with its wide-ranging perspectives on our changing understanding and appreciation of these marvellous creatures."
– Jane Carruthers, Carson fellow and emeritus professor and environmental historian at the University of South Africa

"[...] Dance of the Dung Beetles shows the delightful and charming side of the dung beetle enthusiast [...] scientifically rigorous and highly readable!"
– Sandra Swart, Professor of History, University of Stellenbosch

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