Researchers have known for a few years now that the dung beetle uses the Milky Way galaxy as a map to get itself across the landscape, as it pushes a precious ball of dinner poo toward a safe place to eat.
Now, scientists from Sweden's Lund University have established that all the beetle needs is one good snapshot taken of the heavens in order to find its way. It doesn't "rely on an innate prediction of the natural geographical relationship between celestial cues," as the researchers wrote.
And the kicker? The beetles take this single heavenly picture while simultaneously dancing atop their poo ball.
VIDEO: Dung Beetles Use Milky Way As Compass
First, a quick backgrounder.
Dung beetles, true to their name, have a curious diet: They eat poop. They'll search out a dung heap, roll some of it up in a beetle-sized ball, and push the ball away in a straight line, to protect the meal.
A 2013 study, from the same Lund University team, first determined that they used this bit of celestial navigation to make their way. (Check out our video explainer of that discovery, to, well, orient yourself a bit more to that finding.)
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In the new study, the scientists placed the beetles in a research facility, where they could control an artificial sky. This let them tweak a fake firmament to test how the beetles reacted when objects like the "sun" or "moon" changed direction.
The tests revealed the insect's one-snapshot approach. The little dung-pusher dances around, stores the image in its brain, and then heads off, using the stored picture to sync up with what it sees in the present sky.
"We are the first to have shown that dung beetles are taking these snapshots," said lead researcher Basil el Jundi in a statement. "We are also the first to show how they store and use the images inside their tiny brains."
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One thing should be noted about the beetle's "dance." The term, often applied to its moves, conjures up cartoon images of the insect doing a little jig, but, unfortunately (because a dung beetle jig would be pretty funny) it's a bit of poetic license. Here's what the "dance" really looks like: