Talk about star power—a new study shows that dung beetles navigate via the Milky Way, the first known species to do so in the animal kingdom.
The tiny insects can orient themselves to the bright stripe of light generated by our galaxy, and move in a line relative to it, according to recent experiments in South Africa.
"This is a complicated navigational feat—it's quite impressive for an animal that size," said study co-author Eric Warrant, a biologist at the University of Lund in Sweden.
To test the star theory, scientists set up a small, enclosed table on the game reserve, placed beetles in them, and observed how the insects reacted to different sky conditions. They confirmed that even on clear, moonless nights, the beetles could still navigate their balls in a straight line.
To show that the beetles were focusing on the Milky Way, they moved the table into the Johannesburg Planetarium and found that the beetles could orient equally well under a full starlit sky as when only the Milky Way was present.
Lastly, to confirm the Milky Way results, the team put little cardboard hats on the study beetles' heads, blocking their view of the sky. Those beetles just rolled around and around aimlessly, according to the study, published in the journal Current Biology.