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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Are Dung Beetles Smarter Than Us?

Author: Reilly Capps/Monday, September 23, 2013/Categories: environment

By Reilly Capps 

A little-known fact about us humans is that we are incapable, in certain circumstances, of walking in a straight line (and we're not just talking about 2 a.m. after the bars close) and it is an even littler known fact that dung beetles might be better walking in a straight line than we are. 

I will bet you're surprised by that; I will bet that you think that you are fully capable of walking straight line; I will bet you are no smarter than a dung beetle. 

If you blindfold at human, she will be unable to walk in a straight line, and will tend to walk in circles, notes NPR's Robert Krulwich. 

"Nobody has really figured out why we can't go straight," notes Krulwich. 

Some very clever scientists who were just awarded a semi-ridiculous prize got one clue about walking straight -- they learned that dung beetles can do it, at night, without the moon to guide them. 

How did the dung beetles do it? They used the Milky Way. 

Researchers figured this out by bringing the beetles into a planetarium and seeing under what conditions they could walk in a straight line. They couldn't do it if the sky was black, and they couldn't do it if the researchers put a hat on them so that they couldn't see up. But they could do it if a picture of the Milky Way was projected on the ceiling. 

This is a big deal, and not just because it's beautifully whimsical to think about dung beetles looking at the stars, or to contemplate the reason that they need to walk a straight line -- which is because they need to get away from other dung beetles while they have a valuable pile of dung. It is a big deal because scientists didn't think any animals except birds, seals, and humans navigated by the stars. And it is a big deal because a bunch of people with PhD's spent their time putting hats no beetles. 

This of course doesn't mean that dung beetles are intelligent or capable of awe -- only that the astonishing process of evolution uses whatever is available in every situation to create animals that are surprisingly fit. And it makes it seem likely that, if we look hard enough, we will see that other animals are connected to the natural environments in ways we never dreamed. And we just might see ways in which we are connected, too. 

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