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Dung beetles take ‘snapshot’ of Milky Way to orient themselves

A dung beetle dancing on top of its ball while reading the sky. Basil el Jundi / Lund University

Scientists have known for some time that dung beetles — those little critters that roll up poop — have used the Milky Way to navigate. But now, researchers have determined that not only do they use it to navigate, but they also take a snapshot for reference.

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While other animals, such as birds, are known to use the celestial heavens in their migration patterns or as a way of navigation, this is the first instance where researchers found that an insect or animal essentially takes a mental image and stores it in its memory.

“Other animals and insects also use the position of celestial bodies to navigate, but the dung beetles are unique — they are the only ones to take a snapshot where they gather information about how various celestial bodies, such as the sun, moon and stars, are positioned,” said Basil el Jundi, researcher at Lund University in Sweden.

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The beetle takes the snapshot when it does a dance, storing the image in its brain and continuing to navigate in a straight line to its destination. This makes the beetle extremely efficient.

The researchers from Lund University conducted experiments in South Africa. They used an artificial sky, changing the position of the celestial bodies and watched as the beetles oriented themselves.

El Jundi said that he hopes to use the study to assist in improving navigation systems in driverless cars.

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