Why balls of animal poop are rolling across Great Smoky Mountains trails

Mark Price
Charlotte Observer
This tumblebug is one of the several beetles found in the Smokies that relies on animal waste at to complete its life cycle.

Charlotte, N.C. — In what may be the oddest public notice ever issued by the National Park Service, tourists are being alerted that brown balls seen rolling across trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are animated animal poop.

Yes, bear, deer and raccoon dookie is moving, seemingly on its own.

Closer inspection, however, reveals dung beetles, also known as tumblebugs, are the ones behind the balls of “crap,” which they roll around as part of their birthing process, according to a National Park Service Facebook post.

“It’s like they always say: “When life gives you crap....roll it into a ball, lay an egg inside it, bury it, and use it to nourish your offspring!” the post explains. “At least, that’s what dung beetles and tumblebugs do.”

Anyone who thinks the canthon beetles are cute should keep in mind they also like to eat poop, according to N.C. State University researchers.

As if to prove beetles are moving the poop, the park service posted a video of one of the bugs using its back legs to roll a perfectly formed ball across a trail. Off to one side can be seen the pile of scat (and a few flies) from which the ball was carefully crafted.

The video has been viewed nearly 10,000 times since Friday, and inspired many puns, from “waste not want not” to “this is a bunch of crap.”

Female tumblebugs lay one egg each in their dung balls, so the larvae can develop “without having to compete with their siblings” for nourishment, according to the National Park Service.

“The male will help bury the balls of dung in the ground for safe keeping,” the park service says.

In doing so, the beetles — which grow to about 5/8ths of an inch — also do hikers the service of keeping trails free of aromatic decomposing animal dung, park officials said.