Tamsin Woolley-Barker, PhD.

The Biomimicry Manual: What Can Dung Beetles Teach Us About the Circular Economy?

Dung beetles eat poo. It’s what they do, and they do it many different ways. Rollers tumble it home in little balls; they cradle their eggs in it or save it for a snack. Tunnelers bury it right where they find it, and dwellers, well, dwell in it. Nothing goes to waste in nature, and these little beetles are perfect examples of a species that transforms another’s dross into gold. So, what can they teach us about re-using and recycling materials for a true circular economy? Read on to find out!


Each species of dung beetle has their own special place, but the holy rolling Egyptian scarab is sacred. The ancient Egyptians believed all scarabs were male, and that each day at dawn, the little guys re-enacted the birth of Khepri, god of the rising sun. He deposits his semen into a dung ball, re-creates himself out of nothing, and rolls his reborn sun across the sky into darkness. For the Egyptians, the scarab meant renewal, transformation, and the resurrection of the dead into new shapes among the living.

That all makes sense, of course. Dung is a precious resource; a concentrated patch of moisture, energy, and nutrients. The scarab knows it, moves fast to get it, and once he lays claim to his fragrant treasure, he rolls it away as fast as he can. Other scarabs will have no compunction about stealing the poo right out from under him, like two can-collecting hobos bickering in an alley. A fresh elephant cake will attract over 4,000 dung beetles a mere 15 minutes after it slaps the ground, and another 12,000 are en route. With that kind of competition, you roll fast and hard—dung is a steaming hot commodity.

In nature, every creature’s waste is food for another. Nutrients flow from the dead to the living in a raw soup of energy and matter, passing through our temporary bodies in vast webs of digestion as we feed, digest, and move about. Waste is precious.

This is the theme that emerged from the Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego last week: Big name companies, some of the biggest in the world, are suddenly sitting up and noticing they’ve been pooping gold in our rivers and oceans and air. Now, they’re starting to wonder, “how can I get that gold poop back, and roll it off before someone else does?” Trash heaps are fine if junk is cheap, which is true when it grows on trees and gushes from the earth and leaps from the sea. But today, with the commodity price index going berserk, raw resources are expensive and unpredictable, and prices are volatile. It’s also getting pricey to find somewhere to toss all that trash.

Related: World’s First Wrench 3D-Printed with Recycled Ocean Plastic Wins Innovation Award

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