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Which Animals Use Starlight to Help with Navigation?

It’s not rocket science, but a male dung beetle’s quest to navigate a newly-formed ball of dung in a straight line -- in order to avoid marauders who might steal the dung, and to get back to his mate as quickly as possible -- does require a certain amount of expertise in celestial navigation. In a 2013 study published in Current Biology, zoologist Marie Dacke’s team determined the dung beetle can find its way using only the Milky Way as a guide. Birds, seals, and humans have been known to use stars for navigation, but this was the first evidence that insects can do so, too.

Rollin', rollin', rollin':

  • Researchers placed African dung beetles in a planetarium, and found that they could navigate just as easily with only the Milky Way visible as with a full starlit sky. Under overcast conditions, the beetles lost their way.
  • Dacke's previous research showed that dung beetles use the Moon and celestial polarization patterns to keep moving in a straight line. Now they know that nocturnal beetles can stay on course even on moonless nights.
  • “It was assumed insects could not use the stars because their eyes don’t have the resolution to see them,” explains Dacke. Navigating using the entire Milky Way eliminates the need to see individual stars, she says.
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