PETER FROST unravels the ecological travails of the elephants’ symbiotic companions in Addo National Park
Let me introduce you to my young friend William, he might only be 10 but he has a smart head on his shoulders.
When I taught a lesson for his class at the village school on our local 1923 Braunston canal boat strike William came out tops with his knowledge of both the strike and the labour movement in general.
Our last conversation, however, was about Darwinism, evolution and related themes. William was puzzled. He learnt most about the subject not at school but from TV programmes but he didn’t fully grasp the complicated idea of natural selection.
Although the science intrigued him, he got really interested when I mentioned elephant poo and the curious, very threatened species that lives in and on it.
I told William that few years ago I was invited to South Africa to help the new ANC Ministry of Tourism attract visitors to that beautiful country.
Among the places I visited was Addo Elephant Park in Nelson Mandela Bay. Addo is the third-largest national park in South Africa with spectacular wildlife including 600 wild elephants that have very small or even no tusks.
Over the years this made them less attractive to poachers who tended to hunt down the bigger tuskers. The result was that small tusked animals become dominant.
This isn’t natural selection but selection by illegal slaughter. Today poaching is much better controlled and elephant numbers in Addo are growing nicely.
Creationists will tell you that God designed all the creatures just 6,000 years ago and I suppose if you stretch your credibility you can just about imagine the old bearded geezer dreaming up the magnificent African elephant.
What I find much more difficult is imagining her or him designing the Addo flightless dung beetle (above), Circellium bacchus. This fist-sized beetle is found in Addo and a very few other locations.
These dung beetles have adapted to feed on the droppings of very large animals, mostly elephants.
They eat fresh dung where it drops or roll it into a ball and bury it for later. Up to 16,000 beetles will be recycling a single steaming dung pile.
From the dung the female builds a brood ball several times larger than herself. She rolls it away using her powerful hind legs. Beetles are the world’s strongest insects. Size for size our female can pull equivalent of six double decker buses. She navigates using sun, moon and even the Milky Way.
As she rolls her precious dung ball away the male follows dutifully behind. At a suitable spot, she buries both the ball and him. They mate underground and she lays a single egg inside the ball.
She will stay with it until the egg hatches. The larva feeds on the dung from inside, spending three months as a pupa before it emerges as an immature adult.
These huge and heavy Addo flightless dung beetles have only vestigial wings and have lost the ability to fly. They walk from one poo pile to the next feeding and collecting the dung they need for the brood balls.
Like all other dung beetles, and there are over 1,600 species worldwide, they evolved to match the lifestyle of a particular species and their dung. Without these beetles the earth would be knee deep in the sweet and sticky dung — these beetles are therefore ecologically essential.
In Addo today beetles face a new threat — from car drivers.
Strangely there is something really tempting about driving over or through a two foot high, still steaming pile of pachyderm poo. Worse, Addo elephants, it seems, favour roads as the number one place for “number twos.”
Some really insensitive drivers have even been aiming for the hard working female as she pushes her sizeable brood ball across the highway.
Now the park rangers have signs and fines to protect the beetles from mindless drivers and gradually these amazing creatures are being brought back from the brink.
William tells me he is glad about that. Smart lad that William.
This article appeared in the Morning Star 30 May 2014