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Up Close And Personal With The Dung Beetle

Where will you find more violence than in an NC-17 movie? More sex than on VH1's reality shows? In the downright wild world of the dung-beetle. Biologist Douglas Emlen explains.


Other segments from the episode on September 3, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 3, 2009: Interview with Alastar Fothergill and Mark Linfield; Interview with Robert Sullivan; Interview with Douglas J. Emlen.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Getting To Know The Animal Families Of 'Earth'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our Animal Week series continues with the
stories of a polar bear stranded at sea because of global warming and an
elephant lost in a sandstorm. They are two scenes of animals in the wild from
the movie "Earth."

It was shot in 200 different locations in 64 countries, from the tops of
mountains to the bottom of the ocean. Technological innovations in aviation and
camera equipment made it possible for the filmmakers to capture scenes of
animal life we have not witnessed before.

Earlier this year, I spoke with the two directors of "Earth," Alastair
Fothergill and Mark Linfield. They also collaborated on the TV series "Planet

They've both directed nature programs for the BBC. Fothergill is the former
head of the BCC's Natural History Unit.

Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations
on the movie. You have cameras in amazing places. For example, in the beginning
of the film we see the polar bears just at the end of their hibernation, just
as the sun has returned to the North Pole, and the polar bears are emerging
from underneath the ice to see the sun again.

How did you know when and where to have the cameras so you could actually see
that moment when the polar bears come out of hibernation?

Mr. MARK LINFIELD (Director, "Earth"): Well, if you really know your polar
bears, then there are certain telltale signs that give away the presence of a
den, and in the case of these polar bears that were filmed in Kong Karls Land
in Northern Norway, part of an archipelago off Northern Norway, there's a tiny
little dimple, tiny little dimple in the snow, on a slope, with the slope
having exactly the right degree of slope-iness, and if you know what you're
looking for, that is an absolute telltale sign.

Now, what the crew had to do was stake out that likely den site and wait and
wait and wait and hope that they were correct, and of course after a couple of
weeks of waiting in extremely cold temperatures, the mother finally poked her
nose out of the den. So you know, great field craft, really.

GROSS: You not only have to wait, you have to wait there with a camera rolling
on a piece of ice.

I mean, you know, the camera's focused just on this ice waiting and waiting and
waiting and waiting for the bears to come out, hoping that it's focused on the
right piece of ice at the right moment with the camera on when the bear

Mr. LINFIELD: Well, what's lucky is that the mother polar bear will stick her
nose out, sniff around, put her nose back down and then stick it out again.

GROSS: A-ha, like a dress rehearsal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LINFIELD: So you've got a couple of moments in which to switch the camera
off because you're right, of course. If you were literally running the camera
for two weeks, you'd run out of tapes and batteries.

GROSS: It's a magnificent sight to see the polar bears emerge, like, you know,
the adults and the little children, the little cubs. Can you just describe what
it looks like?

Mr. ALASTAIR FOTHERGILL (Director, "Earth"): It's a very special moment,
really, because - and the reason we spent so much time waiting for that very
special moment is that they've been born underneath the ice.

The mother makes her den in October, November, at the end of the autumn, gives
birth in this den, and you know, when they emerge in March, the cubs are about
two months old, and they literally - they come out, and their eyes are blinking
with the first bright sunlight of the Arctic spring, and they're very nervous.

You know, it's nice and warm and snug inside that den, and you know, it's
minus-35. It's very, very cold in March, and the mother is desperately hungry.
She hasn't eaten for five months, since she went into that den, and she's very
keen to get out onto the sea ice, to hunt for seals.

She's lost half her body weight, but the cubs, they don't want to go anywhere.
You know, they've got mum's milk. They liked staying in the den, and they play
around on the slope, and it's a wonderfully intimate time. But eventually
mother says, come on, come on, you're not going to get any milk if you follow
me, and after about 10 days of hanging around the den entrance, she persuades
her two cubs out onto the sea ice, which is a dangerous and frightening world
for her but also for her cubs.

GROSS: You follow the father bear, the father polar bear of this family, as he
sets out on the ice to find food, which means seals. The problem is, and we've
been hearing a lot about this, that with global warming the ice is melting. The
ice sheet is melting, and we see that illustrated before our eyes with this
polar bear, who - well, why don't you describe, Alistair, what happens to the
polar bear.

Mr. FOTHERGILL: Well, what's interesting about the polar bears is they get
about 90 percent of their food in a very, very limited window of time, and this
is the time in the spring when the sea ice is still not melted away, and the
seals are all giving birth to their pups.

Now, seals, because they're air-breathing mammals, have to come to holes in the
ice, breathing holes, and that is where, for a very short period, the polar
bears can grab the seals.

As soon as the sea ice breaks up, as soon as the seal pups have the strength
and the age to swim away, it's very hard for the polar bears to catch their

And increasingly what's happening with global warming is that that winter sea
ice is breaking up earlier and earlier, and that window of opportunity, that
limited time when they can hunt for their food, is getting shorter and shorter,
and you know, literally the world that they live in, the ice that they walk on,
is melting beneath their feet.

And you know, we would think that if sea ice in the Arctic reduces at its
present rate, it's quite likely that the polar bear may be pretty well extinct
in the wild by 2030, 2040.

This is an animal that isn't really hunted by anybody, that lives in a
wilderness area which is, you know, undisturbed by human populations. It should
be an animal that should be really thriving, and in many ways until recently it
was, but now because of global warming it's in real danger.

GROSS: And it's such a magnificent animal. Why don't you describe the peril
that this father polar bear runs into in its quest to find seals, to find food
for its family.

Mr. FOTHERGILL: Well, the last thing it does in the summer, it - I mean, one of
the magic moments for me, and I was filming this, actually, was I was in a
helicopter, high up, filming the male polar bear swimming out in the open

And this is a world where traditionally we'd never been able to film before
because, you know, you can't walk out there. There's no ice to walk on. You
can't bring in an ice-breaker because you'd disturb the polar bear. But I was
up there in a helicopter, looking down, and this beautiful bear, you know, the
world's largest land carnivore, was swimming, diving down.

The water was crystal clear. You could see it swimming underwater. It looked
beautiful, but you know, it's a problem. You know, polar bears are not designed
for long periods of swimming, and finally our male polar bear had to resort to
attacking a colony of walrus.

When the ice melts, walrus haul out in large groups, and it's a desperate
technique for polar bears because adult walrus are very big, much bigger than
their normal prey, and of course they're armed with those very impressive
tusks, and our actual male was stabbed by a walrus in its attempt to try and
steal one of its pups and actually died, and it's a very strong and powerful
moment in the film, I think.

GROSS: You know, you were filming something that I'm not sure people have seen
before, which is a polar bear swimming in the ocean, looking for food, and you
have this incredible view of it. So exactly where are you poised in this
helicopter? How far are you, and what kind of equipment do you have that
enables you to see in adequate detail what the polar bear is doing?

Mr. FOTHERGILL: What's amazing is we were basically a mile away from that bear,
and this was a remarkable new camera system called the Cineflex, and what it
effectively does is it carries a camera beneath the helicopter, but very
importantly and very sort of in breakthrough, really, the lens on that camera
is far more powerful than any lens that we have been able to stabilize on a
helicopter before.

And that means you can be a mile away from the animal you're trying to film and
yet still get the close-ups you want without in any way disturbing the animal.
So the male polar bear had no idea that we were there.

And we used it many times. We used it to film a wolf hunt from the air. Again,
wolves are very shy animals, but we were able to film for the first time a
complete wolf hunt in that way. We used it to follow our humpback whale mother
and her calf through rough ocean waters. You'd never be able to keep up in a

And it was a - you know, it was one of the most important breakthroughs for
this movie, both in filming behavior but also in delivering wonderful
cinemagraphic, wide-angle images of the scenery of our planet.

GROSS: You know, I'm thinking when the polar bear was swimming, looking for
land and for food, you had a much more expansive view than the polar bear did,
and you could see basically what he was in store for, that there wasn't - he
wasn't going to find land, and he wasn't going to find a place where he could
get at seals.

What did it feel like knowing the kind - knowing basically that the polar bear
was doomed, which the polar bear didn't know?

Mr. FOTHERGILL: Many people ask us that question. You know, why don't you get
involved? Why don't you - you know, some people say: Why don't you shoot a
walrus to feed the polar bear? You know, when you get into these situations
where you see animals having a really hard time, can't you intervene?

And of course for us the first rule of wildlife filmmaking really is never
disturb, never intervene. It's not our role. I mean, it's impractical, to be
honest. I mean, you can't go on shooting walruses for polar bears, even if
you'd want to. And you know, it's a moral issue. We just need to observe and
show people nature as it is, both, you know, the gentle side of nature and also
the more tough and rough side of nature as well.

GROSS: Well, also, say you were doing the film on the walruses, you know, then
you'd be really upset that the polar bear was coming to kill the walrus.

Mr. FOTHERGILL: I think the thing is to put everything in the context, you
know. I mean, you know, a walrus has its pups. You know, the polar bear is
starving. We have a very powerful sequence of a cheetah catching a gazelle, and
you have to remember that, of course, that cheetah has cubs to feed, and that's
the whole point about nature.

You need to - I think we were very, very keen to show it in its trueness, true
nature, and there are some harder scenes. There need to be to give a true
picture of the natural world.

GROSS: My guests are Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, directors of the
film “Earth.” We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We’re talking about filming animals in the wild. My guests, Alastair
Fothergill and Mark Linfield, directed the movie “Earth,” which followed animal
families in 64 countries in search of food.

Mark Linfield, you worked very closely on this sequence about the elephant
migration to get, during the dry season, to water. Describe a little bit what
the elephants are up against in this migration.

Mr. LINFIELD: Yes, well, the elephants migrating across the Kalahari in
southern Africa, which is where we filmed them, have to undertake really quite
an epic migration, as you say, driven by - ultimately by thirst but also
hunger, and it's a journey that takes them through extremely inhospitable
lands, and I think that's best illustrated in the movie by an occasion where
they're crossing a particularly barren stretch of ground - effectively desert,
really sand.

And we were filming them from a helicopter. I recall the day when we looked on
the horizon, and there was just this wall of dust heading towards them, and
basically out of nowhere a sandstorm had blown up, and the elephants had no
idea what was coming.

From our high vantage point in the sky, we could see what they were about to
face, and these elephants just disappeared into the sandstorm, and from way
above it was just an incredible view unfolding beneath us, of these mother
elephants trying to nurse their calves, trying to push them through the worst
of the storm, trying to keep motivating, trying to keep them going, and the
whole herd, which is sort of hunkering down and pulling together.

And despite this, despite the fact that all the elephants were pulling together
and the mothers were trying to take good care of their calves, I remember when
the storm cleared there was an incredibly sad scene of this one little elephant
walking off into the distance, and it thought that it was just falling slightly
behind, and it was trying to walk faster and faster to catch up with its

And from where we were in the sky, we could see that it was actually heading in
exactly the wrong direction, and we could see right out into the open that
basically it was heading off into the middle of nowhere. And I think that that
was one of the moments for me where you really sense this idea of the animals
battling the elements on our planet and just a great sense of wilderness.

And it was something that really we've only been able to capture recently
because of advances in technology and the ability to film animal behavior from
the air. I mean, these sorts of scenes just a few years ago would have been
impossible to film.

GROSS: There's a lot of animal showdowns in the film, and one of them is during
the elephant migration sequence when, you know, the elephants -they're hungry,
they're thirsty, you can see they've lost a lot of their body weight because
you're starting to see, like, bones sticking out, and then they're attacked by
some lions. And could you describe where you and the film crew were while
shooting this confrontation?

Mr. LINFIELD: Yes, the film crew led by a great camerawoman called Justine
Evans had staked out a water hole, and of course that's exactly what the lions
were doing too. The lions knew the elephants were going to come to this water
hole, and very unusually for lions, this extremely large group of specialist
elephant hunters - and of course it takes a large group to bring down even a
medium size elephant - so this is one of the biggest groups of lions in Africa,
one of the biggest prides in Africa.

And to see them waiting there for nightfall, because of course the lions attack
by night - and there's a simple reason for that, which is lions have excellent
night vision and elephants really have no better vision at night than we do -
in order to see them, the camera team had an infrared camera and infrared

Now, when these lights are switched on, no one can see them, not the crew, not
the elephants and not the lions, but by looking down the eyepiece of the
infrared camera, the camerawoman, Justine, could see absolutely everything.

So we have this extraordinary scene where lions are particularly actually
trying to get the calves but in doing so absolutely terrifying the adult
elephants and chasing the elephants around the water hole.

And actually it's one of the most dangerous things that we filmed for "Earth"
because whilst many people might think that these lions could leap into the
back of the vehicle and take the camera crew, in fact they just don't register
a vehicle as being prey. You could say that they're not particularly bright,
but they just, they don't recognize the opportunity that's in front of them.
The real danger lies in the fact that they are terrifying elephants.

And a terrified elephant is quite a formidable thing, and many Land Rovers in
the past in Africa have been flattened by rampaging elephants, and that's in
the daytime. So of course, you've got a crew sitting around a water hole with
elephants rampaging past them, terrified, being chased by lions, and the
elephants don't even know where the vehicle is. So there's a large element of
luck required just in order not to get crushed.

GROSS: So did any of the camera crew get hurt by the elephants?

Mr. LINFIED: No, none of them. I'm pleased to say that they were all absolutely
fine but quite shaken by, you know, what they saw, and this was quite an
interesting challenge for Alastair and I.

We had to think very carefully about what things to include in "Earth" because,
you know, we didn't want to shy away from the fact that animals eat and are
eaten, but at the same time we didn't want to show any what we felt was
gratuitous blood and violence, because A) we didn't feel it's particularly
interesting. You know, the interesting part is the strategy of the hunt, it's
not seeing an animal torn apart in detail.

So we didn't really see that that stuff was interesting, and furthermore, it
was very important to us that we made a movie that we felt children could see
and that parents felt safe taking their children to, because there's so much in
"Earth" that the young children - and we felt so passionately that we wanted
young people to be able to see the movie, that we discussed, you know, at great
length where the line should be drawn on these predation sequences.

And you know, generally the strategy is interesting, the strategy of the
predator is interesting, the strategy of the prey to escape is interesting, but
once you get to the moment where the outcome is really self-evident, we felt it
was right to cut the camera at that point.

GROSS: Well, for example, in the sequence where the lions are attacking the
elephants, you see a lion basically jump up and bite an elephant a couple of
times. So you don't see the final kill, but you see elements of the attack.

Mr. LINFIED: That's precisely it. I mean, the lions mount the elephant, and
very conveniently the elephant runs behind a bush where the lions dispatch it,
and you might say that's a slightly Disney ending. You know, you don't, you
don't get to see the meat of it.

You know, we would say that was exactly the right point to cut because the
interesting part, the rare piece of behavior had been seen by that point, and
really we have plenty of material of what followed - and I have to tell you the
rushes were - or the dailies, as you call them - were quite hard to stomach,
some of them, and we just saw really no, no benefit in showing that to people.

GROSS: Since you spend so much time in the wild shooting animals, do you have
pets to go home to?

Mr. LINFIELD: Yeah. I have a cat. I've to say Alas is not very happy about that
because my cat eats birds, and Alas is extremely keen on birds.

Mr. FOTHERGILL: I love birds.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LINFIELD: But no, I like as many animals in my life as possible, and I'm
very fond of my cat.

GROSS: Do you see your cat differently because you see so many like lions and
cheetahs and…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LINFIELD: No, I see my cat for the awful little predator that it is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LINFIELD: But I must say, I probably - I'm in complete denial. I mistakenly
think that - think that he recognizes me and loves me. I'm absolutely - I'm
sure he doesn't. But no, he is part of the natural world just like all of us,
and he is a ruthless little predator.

Mr. FOTHERGILL: And I have a couple Jack Russell dogs, and my boys have
hamsters, Siberian hamsters, which they love, and they're good pets. They're
good fun.

GROSS: Alright. Well, thank you both so much. And congratulations on the film.

Mr. LINFIELD: Thank you very much. Very nice to have such a nice chat.

GROSS: Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield directed the movie "Earth." We
spoke in April when the film was released. Our Animal Week series continues in
the second half of the show. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Animals Robert Sullivan, In The Alleys With 'Rats'


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

Our Animal Week series continues with an animal that has a perverse celebrity
status, the rat. Journalist Robert Sullivan describes rats as nature's
mobsters, flora and fauna's serial killers who breed in filth and carry
disease. They're all around us, even if they're hiding out of our sight. It
wasn't difficult for Robert Sullivan to find a colony of rats to study. He
chose a trash-filled alley just a block or two from Wall Street. He waited
night after night to watch the rats come out and feed. After also traveling
with exterminators and doing historical research, he wrote his book, "Rats:
Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted

This interview was recorded with Sullivan in 2004 when the book was published.
We started with a short reading from Sullivan's rat journal describing one
evening in his rat alley.

Mr. ROBERT SULLIVAN (Author, "Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of
the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants"): 6:50 - Out across Fulton Street the
garbage from the Burger King is dragged out, as I imagine this happening at
fast food restaurants all over New York at around this time. A small mountain
of garbage bags forms, a vile and grease-dripping, sedimentary New York City
occurrence that nightly turns the streets into miniature badlands to be roaded
by morning, assuming the sanitation workers arrive, after which, there will be

dark stains on the concrete like sweat on the morning rocks of a mountain.

7:57 - More garbage, more rats, so many more that it's becoming difficult to
concentrate. There are too many rats now, more than a dozen visible at any
time, squads constantly surfacing, resurfacing. In the foreground are the young
rats. In the back, the larger rats, the rats that must be older, given their

When I venture up with binoculars, I can see their modeled coats, the bite
marks, on one, a gash-like scar. I see also specialty diversions, rat
performers in a circus of trash affording much entertainment for the alley
watcher. A rat climbs up a garbage bag, stops at the summit, appears to look
around. The rat jumps nearly straight up. In fact, jumps for what my later
measurements will show to be one foot, up, up and on to the old ledge of a
boarded up window. The rat walks along the ledge and turns behind the rusted
old steel window bars to face the alley again and lowers himself down on to a

bag back close to the wall. A bag that is inaccessible from the alley floor.

7:15 - The rats are drunk on food I think. Technically speaking, all the rat
needs is three to four ounces of food a day, but these rats seem to be greatly
exceeding that amount. And wouldn't you? It's not at all difficult to picture
the rat eating at its food source until the food source is destroyed, cleaned
out, until the rat must move on to the next alley, the next street, the next

GROSS: That's Robert Sullivan reading from his new book "Rats." Robert, why did
you want to spend a year observing rats in a New York alley?

Mr. SULLIVAN: I feel like saying it wasn't my fault. I didn’t mean to do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULLIVAN: I don’t really, sometimes I don’t know why at all and other times
it seems I can't believe I wasn’t doing it sooner. I like to go places where
rats tend to be in, you know, alleys and swamps and garbage dumps. All the
places that nobody wants to go to, it turns out that rats are kind of the theme
park mascot of my places that I like.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULLIVAN: But the other thing happened was I was writing a book about a
whale hunt, about a tribe, a Native American tribe and they were hunting a
whale and everybody, of course, came up to say you can't hunt a whale. The
tribe said we should be able to maybe and some people said you shouldn’t. It
was a big to-do about whales. And I started reading about whales and why we
kind of love whales.

And I read about how we went from being a whaling nation and whaling, you know,
the whales out of the world pretty much to being a nation that kind of loves
whales, loves dolphins, especially loves dolphins and we feel we're on a
parallel, sometimes some people think we can communicate with dolphins, we're
like dolphins. And then I started thinking, well what's the creature that
nobody feels like they can think like? The creature that nobody wants to say I
went swimming with rats tonight, you know, in a lagoon in Florida?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULLIVAN: And that ends up being rats. So this is the creature that I want
to check out.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. So how did you choose your spot to observe rats?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, I have a friend from high school, my friend Dave, and we
still hang out even since high school. And we decided to kind of go out looking
for the perfect place to look for rats. Of course, we asked our wives if it's
all right if we went out after dinner to look for rats and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULLIVAN: wife said that would be fine as long as I went with Dave.
It's very important to her that I'm with somebody when I'm out there looking at
rats. Although, after a while I was going alone, I got to know my alley. But we
just kind of went into downtown Manhattan at night. I’d gotten some tips from
some exterminators that around Seaport would be a good area.

First we found this abandoned McDonald’s. It was kind of filled with rats. What
was amazing was initially we looked in the McDonald’s. We went by it maybe a
couple times that night or we looked in at first and saw nothing. But then we
went back and we realized it was filled with rats. We just didn’t know how to
see them, and this is an exciting thing you learn early on...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULLIVAN: that there's all this stuff going on in places that you
don’t know stuff is going on. You can't see rats. That doesn’t mean they're not
there. Anyway, we ended up going beyond that to this little alley that was kind
of between two restaurants and it was just, we realized, really full of rats.
And moreover, there's this great kind of multicultural food supply. And
finally, this was just a great small alley that I felt like I'd maybe seen once
but hadn't seen. People were walking by and not noticing it and that felt like
the perfect place. A place that everybody passed by and nobody saw.

GROSS: Now rats are nocturnal animals. When do they start coming out?

Mr. SULLIVAN: They come out on cue. It's amazing. They come out right after the
sunset. Just before it gets dark they come out first and they do an initial
feeding. As I'm saying this, I can't believe that this really happens, but it
really happens. They kind of get an initial, you know, run through. It's sort
of like breakfast. Then, if it’s a heavy alley, an alley with a lot of garbage,
you'll see them continue to be out. But they - sometimes they’ll go back in,
back into their nests. And in this particular alley, that meant that they would
sometimes go back down through the cracks and the cobblestones, back down into
the street, into the hill, which is very, very amazing. But anyway, then
they’ll come out again kind of in the middle of the night and they'll
oftentimes come out for another big feeding before sunset. It’s the reverse of
our day.

GROSS: I always associate rats with garbage. Do rats have a preference for food
that's rotting? Or if we left like fresh food out for them, would they be
eating that as much as the garbage?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, rats like garbage. But there's different kinds of garbage.
And we think, many people think of garbage rightfully as garbage, but if you
take apart garbage, you see that, you know, there's all different parts to it.
And rats won't eat rancid food. They won't go for stale or bad food
necessarily. They'll take what they like first and it’s, I think it's written
in the rat literature that a rat might starve in an alley full of raw carrots.
Rats, generally speaking, are not crazy about their vegetables. They like fried
foods. They like fatty foods.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULLIVAN: A really fun thing about the rat food preference list...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULLIVAN: that it matched up very nicely with the human food
preference list and...

GROSS: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULLIVAN: And you know, like at Gourmet Magazine I could just see a rat
sitting down and saying, oh yeah. I got to make that out of last week's
garbage. And another interesting thing about foods, rat food and garbage is
that rats develop kind of a preference, a palate that matches the neighborhood.
And I’d sort of heard this. I heard from exterminators who'd said that oh, my
rats like this kind of spicy food and my rats like this kind of food. And it’s
pretty interesting to think that a rat would develop an interest in the food
that matched the culture, the ethnicity that lived in that neighborhood.

GROSS: So what was like the creepiest or scariest moment for you when you were
in the alley that you adopted observing the rats?

Mr. SULLIVAN: There were many creepy, disturbing moments. But the most, sort of
rat-oriented, rat-freaky moment definitely happened to be when I was in this
one alley with my friend, Dave, and another friend, Matt, and I had to kind of
turn away people from going ratting with me. Oftentimes people would say, you
know, can I go to your rat alley. And that's the kind of thing, you can't let
everybody go to your rat alley. You just, it gets out of hand. So at one point
I did, though, bring a second friend when we were thinking about maybe trapping
rats and so forth. Something didn't, it didn’t work out the way I’d hoped.

Anyway, Matt and Dave were in the alley and there was a guy named Derrick(ph)
who was kind of living around the alley and he seemed to have some control over
the rats in this alley. And this was another alley from my alley but it was
definitely a rat-filled alley and he orchestrated the movement of the rats -
Derrick did. And Derrick began calling upon the rats and beating with a stick
and beating metal and the rats then started running out all at once.

And we went over the numbers immediately after - Dave, and Matt and I went over
the numbers - and there were definitely at - we, you know, we want to say
thousands of rats but there weren't. There were somewhere between 100 and 200
rats. There were a lot of rats and they were all coming down the alley. This is
a tough thing to experience if you’re just a person in sneakers and light
camping gear. And here comes this pack of rats which, of course, I had read
about, you know, many times but never seen. And the pack of rats is coming and
what was most amazing was as soon as they hit this corner, corner of an old
abandoned building, they all took a left and it was just like watching
everybody come off of Lexington Avenue and sneak into that small...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULLIVAN: ...that small subway entrance that's around 59th and 58th.
Everybody went down a single file. You know it went from crazed mass pack of
rats to single file, okay around the corner we're going down this hole now. It
was incredible.

GROSS: Well Robert, now that this book is behind you, I wish you a life without

Mr. SULLIVAN: Thank you.

GROSS: And thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SULLIVAN: I wish you a life without rats as well. Thank you.

GROSS: Robert Sullivan recorded in 2004 after the publication of his book

Coming up, a creepy creature that's more hidden than the rat. We talk with
biologist Douglas Emlen about the bizarre world of the dung beetle.

This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Up Close And Personal With The Dung Beetle


Underneath the cow patties in the pasture and the monkey dung in the jungle,
there's a miniature world of sex and violence. Dung beetles with fierce-looking
horns are battling over female beetles. And my guest, Douglas Emlen, is
studying them. He's an expert on the evolution and development of bizarre or
extreme shapes in insects. He's particular interested in insect weaponry. Dung
beetles have what he's looking for. Lots of his work is in the lab, but he's
also had some wild adventures collecting different families of dung beetles
from around the world. Emlen is a professor of biology at the University of
Montana. If you want to follow along, on our Web site there's a dung-beetle
slide show and a video of two beetles battling. That's at

Doug Emlen, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now I think it's fair to say that dung
beetles wouldn't be most people's first choice of an animal to study. So what
is unique about the dung beetle's armor that makes you so interested in
studying them?

Mr. DOUGLAS EMLEN (Professor of Biology, University of Montana): There are a
variety of things, and I guess I should first of all qualify that by saying
they weren't my first choice of organism, either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EMLEN: It's a hard thing to wake up in the morning and decide you're
suddenly go out there and study dung beetles. I started out trying to study
some of the big rhinoceros beetles as a graduate student, and the project
failed pretty spectacularly. And it was a biologist named Bill Everhart that
took me under his wing after that failed project and said no, no, no. You're
looking at the wrong beetles. And he opened up this box, and it was full of all
these little, tiny beetles that are the size of your pinky or even the size of
an eraser on a new pencil. And he opens up the box, and it smells like horse
manure, and I looked him, and I said those are dung beetles. There's no way I'm
going to work on those things. And he laughed at me at the time and told me I
was a fool, and basically explained that for all the kinds of biology that I
wanted to understand, genetics and behavior and diversity, these things were

And since that time, to come back full circle to your question, the dung
beetles have turned out to be an amazing system to study, and they've taught us
so much about biology in many ways.

But you mentioned the weapons. The thing that first drew me to them is the
spectacular diversity in their morphology. They have these incredible shapes,
and most of the diversity in those shapes involves these weapons. And so for
lack of a better analogy, these tiny, little insects, that again, as I said,
are often the size of an eraser on a pencil, on a new pencil, these things are
the insect equivalent of a bull elk or a male deer, and they have incredible
weapons coming off of their bodies.

And you look across the species, and there’s variation among the species.
Sometimes the horns comes from the back of the head, sometimes from the front
of the head, sometimes from the thorax, which is equivalent to sort of between
your shoulder blades. Sometimes they’re branched, forked, curved, straight.
There’s just an incredible variety of forms.

And I was interested as a biologist in how a little, tiny animal like that
could strut around with these enormous weapons sticking off the side of their
body and survive.

GROSS: You know what? It’s kind of amazing, and I mean, not only do they have
these weapons, like, some of them are like antlers. Some of them are like a
rhinoceros horn. Some of them are like lobster pincers. But they also have,
like, hair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EMLEN: Many of the horns – you mean the beetles or the horns?

GROSS: Well, the beetles, and yeah.

Mr. EMLEN: They do, and some of the horns in some of the species tend to have
hair. We see that more often in the rhinoceros beetles than in the dung
beetles, per se, but very often the sides of these horns are adorned with thick
rows of hairs, and it’s really sort of embarrassingly unknown what those things

There’s a good chance that they are sensory structures so that when a male
locks with another male, fighting, they can tell where the horns of the
opponent male are because they’re distending or pushing down all these fine
hairs on the surface of the horn.

But some people think that the hairs might actually have chemo-detectors. They
may be good for smell or for releasing signals. We don’t know.

GROSS: I can tell you one thing for sure. They’re not fashionable.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: They are really creepy looking.

Mr. EMLEN: That’s a matter of opinion. I disagree. I think they’re fantastic.

GROSS: Well, they are fantastic in a creepy kind of way. Let me ask you to
describe one or two of the types of dung beetles that you find most fascinating
in terms of their form and shape.

Mr. EMLEN: Sure. So one of the species of dung beetle that we spent quite a bit
of time studying is – has the species name Taurus, as in the bull, and it
actually has a pair of long, curved horns that extend upwards and backwards
from the head of male beetles.

So it’s a big, curled set of horns, and when the head is tucked back against
the rest of the body, the horns sort of wrap in snugly around the equivalent of
the shoulders or the thorax. But when these males are fighting, they pull their
heads forward, and they’ve got quite an impressive pair of horns.

And we’ve looked at these beetles in a variety of ways and looked at what they
do with the horns and who has the horns and who doesn’t have the horns and how
the horns develop, and all kinds of questions coming from that basic oddity of
their morphology - the fact that they’ve got these huge weapons.

GROSS: You want to describe another one?

Mr. EMLEN: Sure. So one of my favorite species, unfortunately it’s not one that
we’ve been able to study in numbers, but it’s one of the most spectacular of
these beetles, is a species that actually was illustrated in Darwin’s book, his
treatise in which he initially described the whole theoretical concept of
sexual selection, the process of biology that myself and so many other
biologists study.

And in this beetle, the beetle is a brilliant, iridescent green color, turning
sort of shimmering from a green to a yellow to a blue and in some angles even
purple. So it has this beautiful sheen to it. And the males have a long, curved
pair of horns that come up from the head that are much longer than the ones in
the species I just described to you. And they have a branch in the middle of
them with a tine that comes off and points inwards. And then at the very tips
of the horns, it swells outwards into almost a little plate, so beautiful
branched, curved horns coming off of this species.

GROSS: So the purpose of these weapons, the horns and the pincers, are
basically to fight off other guys for girls.

Mr. EMLEN: Yup.

GROSS: So, like, the male dung beetles fight each other over the available
female beetles.

Mr. EMLEN: They do, they do.

GROSS: So does that mean – have you watched them fight?

Mr. EMLEN: Oh yes, yes, many times.

GROSS: Oh, describe what a fight looks like.

Mr. EMLEN: It actually looks like pandemonium. It was not what we expected at
all. So these are dung beetles, the ones that we’re talking about right now,
and so what happens in these cases are these beetles are very good at smelling
their food source, and they follow these odor cues into the food. And when they
find dung of the particular species that they feed on, they often have to deal
with hundreds, and in some cases thousands of other individuals that are coming
in and piling into that same place and competing to carve up and use that food

So what happens is the beetles go instantly underground. They go right beneath
the food source, the dung pile, so to speak, and the females actually excavate
these burrows in the ground, and the males guard the entrances to these
burrows. And they have big teeth-like spines on their legs, and they lock
themselves, they brace themselves against the tunnel walls and try to prevent
rival males from getting into the tunnels where the females are.

The females - these are amazing insects because they have elaborate parental-
care behaviors. The females will take pieces of the dung down into the burrows
and chew them up with their mouth parts and process them and pack them together
into these sort of balls, these little sausages of buried dung underground. And
then she’ll excavate a chamber at the end of that and place an egg in there.
And that’s essentially the full food resource, like an allocate of food for
each one of her offspring. And she’ll do that, lay an egg and then close in the
tunnel and then build another one of these balls and then close the tunnel. And
we’ve watched these beetles do this.

The females will make 50, 100 different trips down into the ground for every
single one of these eggs that she lays. And during this time, the male is
guarding that tunnel, keeping everybody else away and mating with the female
absolutely as often as he possibly can. And other males come and challenge.

And the fights take place inside these tunnels. And they scramble, and they
push, and they pry, and they twist. And we tried forever to figure out how it
is, exactly, that they use these horns because we wanted to know why would one
species have a straight horn and another species have a curved horn and another
species have a branched horn.

And we were assuming that we’d be able to pick up intricacies in the nature of
these fights that would tell us why one species had one shape or another, and
we failed. The fights are just chaos. We filmed hundreds of them, and they’re
amazing things to watch, but there’s nothing predictable or repeatable about
them except the outcome.

Somehow or other, bracing and twisting and prying and pushing and pulling and
trying to get the other beetle out of the tunnel, somehow, at the end of the
day, the male that has the longest horns and/or the largest body sizes
typically is the one who wins. And the smaller males get pushed out of the
tunnels and leave and go find another tunnel and try to push their way into

GROSS: So they just use these horns to bash away at their competition?

Mr. EMLEN: Yeah, I wouldn’t call it bash. I would say they more use the horns
to block the tunnel. You’ve got essentially a round or an egg-shaped animal
blocking a tunnel, and they’re very strong. So you have a rival pushing itself
past, and it seems that the horns, regardless of what precise shape they take,
seem to function like bars of a jail cell. They sort of block – they make it
easier for a male inside the tunnel to block it so that another male can’t push

But it’s not as simple as that because they don’t sit still. They twist and
push and pry. But they don’t stab with them. They aren’t able to puncture the
armor of the rival males. So they don’t actually get injured in this process,
and they don’t really bash each other either, but they definitely spar and
twist, sort of strength contests, I suppose.

But there’s a twist to this story, too.

GROSS: Yeah?

Mr. EMLEN: Which is that the biggest males have the biggest weapons, and these
are the ones that are usually the most successful at guarding that tunnel and
at mating with the female inside the tunnel, but there are small males in these
populations, too, and they don’t produce the horns.

And so these small males look much more similar to a female. They don’t have
the big antlers or the big weapons, and they don’t fight over the tunnels,
either. They have a sneak tactic, a satellite tactic. What’ll happen is they’ll
work their way into a tunnel and try to stay there, but they get kicked out
right away by bigger males. And instead of going from tunnel to tunnel to
tunnel to keep trying, they stay after they get kicked out, and they dig their
own tunnel right next to the main tunnel. And after they get sort of a
centimeter or so down below the ground, they cut horizontally, and they can
intercept the guarded tunnel beneath the guarding male. And sometimes they’re
able to sneak in, zoom down to the female, mate with the female and get out
again before the guarding male has essentially figured out what’s going on.

So you’ve got big males with weapons fighting, and little, tiny sneak males
without the weapons sneaking into these tunnels on the sly.

GROSS: So the less macho dung beetles still find a way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EMLEN: They try. I don’t think that they’re as successful as the larger,
dominant males, but yes, they definitely find a way.

GROSS: Can you see the armor and the weapons with your naked eye?

Mr. EMLEN: Yes, but I’ve had some practice. I think the first thing – if
somebody were to go out and look for this in their backyard, which is the other
fun thing about this system is that these beetles live in so many different
habitats and so many places that you’d be pretty hard-pressed to live anywhere
where you couldn’t go into a pasture or into the backyard and turn over a cow-
manure pile and look underneath it and find some of these beetles. They’re that
abundant and that widespread.

So if you were to go out and look for these things yourself and tip over a cow
pile and look at the dirt, maybe dig with a trowel into the first couple inches
of the soil and turn it around, you’d find these beetles. They’re often, in
most habitats, certainly around most places in the U.S. - they would be on the
order of half-a-centimeter to a centimeter long, and they’re squat.

The beetles that I’m talking about with the weapons walk like little tortoises.
They sort of jerk their way along. And you can pick them up and see the horns
with the naked eye.

We often look at them under microscopes to take more precise measurements of
these things, and we photograph them either using really good camera lenses, or
sometimes scanning electron microscopes will take really good pictures of these
things, as well. But you can definitely, for a lot of these beetles, pick them
up out of the ground and look at them with a hand lens or with your naked eye
and see these really cool weapons.

GROSS: My guest is Doug Emlen, a biology professor at the University of
Montana. We’ll talk more about his work studying dung beetles after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is biologist Doug Emlen, and we’re
talking about his work studying dung beetles. And he studies them because he’s
interesting in insects who have armor, and a lot of dung beetles have really
fascinating armor, horns and antlers and so on.

Now you’ve described these, like, you know, antler-like and branch-like weapons
and armor and weapons that the dung beetles have, and they sound, like, really
big compared to the size of the actual beetles. Aren’t they kind of cumbersome
to tote around? I mean, I know they need them to fight and to bar off the
tunnels and prevent other males from getting in, but they also must really get
in the way.

Mr. EMLEN: They do, and so to try to give you a sense for how much they get in
the way, the analogy I like to use is that for some of these beetles, it would
equivalent to you producing another leg and wearing it around on your head for
your entire adult life.


Mr. EMLEN: That’s the best analogy I can give you because when you – if you try
to estimate how big these things are, in some of these cases the horn, the
weapons, can be 10, 15, 20 percent of the body weight of the animal. That’s a
fifth of the total weight of the animal is allocated to this one thing.

And so it really is analogous to an extra leg on your head for your entire
adult life, and it has to be costly. So we’ve used a variety of types of
experiments to try to measure how costly it is, and we found, for example, if a
male beetle puts a ton of resources into making a horn, it means that he has to
stunt something else.

There’s not enough resources left, in a sense, and so in some of these beetles,
if they have really big horns, they have really small eyes. We found that in
beetles that have horns on the back of their head, their eyes were 30-percent
smaller as a result of having allocated everything to the weapons.

In another species, they actually trade off with the testes or with the wings.
So there are costs associated with producing these big, bulky things.

GROSS: So what do these dung beetles say about evolution? What do you feel like
you’ve learned about evolution from studying them?

Mr. EMLEN: Honestly I’d have to turn that on its head and say what haven’t I
learned about evolution from them. These beetles have taught us, and me in
particular, an amazing amount of lessons, some good and some more frustrating.
But the biggest question that I have been focusing on and that I think I’ve
learned a ton from these beetles on has to do with the backdrop of animal

It’s very hard to be an evolutionary biologist and not look around you and
become sort of increasingly aware of the differences among animals that are out
there. There’s so much variation in the ways things act, the way they look, and
it is sort of amplified, in a way, in these beetles.

The variation in shape, especially connected with these weapons, is truly
stunning in this group of beetles. And so as a biologist, I’m obsessed with
understanding where this diversity in form comes from. How did these big, gaudy
structures arise, meaning what do the beetles use these for? How – you know,
once we know how they’re used in natural populations, we can ask questions like
how did they evolve? Under what types of ecological or environmental
circumstances are these weapons likely to evolve?

And then that leads us to the next question of why don’t all these beetles have
the same weapons? What is it about them or about their history or the ecologies
and behaviors of these animals in the past that has caused weapon evolution to
go one way in some populations and a different way in other populations - and
for it to go in enough different ways in enough different species that we end
up with the truly thousands of types of shapes and forms and locations for
these weapons on their bodies.

And so there’s sort of fundamental biological questions connected with animal
diversity that we are tackling with these beetles.

GROSS: Well, Doug Emlen, thank you so much for talking with us about the
beetles that you’ve been studying.

Dr. EMLEN: Oh thank you. It’s been my pleasure too.

GROSS: Doug Emlen is a biology professor at the University of Montana. Our
interview was recorded last May. If you’d like to see a dung beetle fight show
and the video of two beetles battling go to our Web site at,
where you can also download Podcasts of our show.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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