We have all heard this one about ants – that they can lift more than 50 times their body-weight, equivalent to an average human being lifting about 3000 kgs or so. The Dung Beetle, apparently, takes this metric to a different level.
How do these super-weightlifters manage this? To understand this we start with 2 basic measures – volume and surface area – and try and get our heads around the correlation between these in the context of this particular comparison. The weight of any organism is related to its volume – for the sake of simplicity I am ignoring the impact of density on this maths. The strength of a muscle, however, is proportional to the surface area of its cross-section. And you would all know that surface area is a two-dimensional measurement as opposed to volume which is a three-dimensional measurement. Hence, there tends to be a multiplicative correlation between the two which carries forward into the correlation between strength of a muscle and the weight of the organism.
In smaller beings like ants and the dung-beetle, the ratio of surface area to volume is much larger than larger beings like humans and elephants. This, automatically, creates a much larger multiplicative ratio – actually so large, at times, that it becomes an order of magnitude, or even multiple orders of magnitude – in comparison.
In addition to this, there is also the significant impact of their own body weight to factor in – large beings have the added burden of having to handle their own larger body mass along with whatever object they are lifting. While the small ant or the dung-beetle have a lower load to lift its own body.
I shot this video of the little dung-beetle rolling a fairly large ball of dung (in relation to its own weight) up a sandy slope in the Thar desert in Rajasthan. While this doesn’t look anywhere close to what they are capable of – they can, apparently, lift more than 1000 times their body weight – but it does look like they are weightlifting champions, relatively speaking.
While we were watching, the dung-ball rolled down several times all the way down the slope, carrying the dung-beetle along with it. But the chap just didn’t give up – he just got up, dusted himself off and kept at the task with the same amount of enthusiasm. And he just didn’t rest till he got it all the way to where he wanted it to be. Persistent little chaps they sure are.