Romancing the Stars

[Odysseus] never closed his eyes, but kept them fixed on the Pleiades, on late-setting Bootes, and on the Bear – which men also call the Wain, and which turns round and round where it is, facing Orion, and alone never dipping into the stream of Oceanus – for Calypso had told him to keep this to his left.

The Odyssey (Book 5) Homer

Celestial navigation is as old as the stars (I apologise, I couldn’t resist the pun!). The night sky was used as a navigation tool long before compasses were invented, and it helped most of the ancient explorers gad about the globe without maps. Even today, anyone who doesn’t trust Apple Maps knows how to orient themselves using Polaris in the northern hemisphere and the Southern Cross in the south.

But, like a lot of things we think we’re pretty good at, animals figured it out long before we did. Quite a few interesting experiments have shown that birds or animals can navigate using the stars and now, the dung beetle has become the first insect proven to navigate by the stars (although, maybe the ancient Egyptians already knew this when they elevated the dung-rolling scarab to sacred status?).

Marie Dacke and her colleagues designed an experiment to test how dung beetles used the night sky to roll away from the dung heap. Dung beetles are pretty serious about their poo, and when there’s a whole group of them on a fresh heap, any given beetle is hardwired to get their ball rolling and get out of there because the competition can get pretty dirty (…sorry, there I go again!).

Using field and planetarium lab experiments with various states of ‘night sky’ overhead, Dacke’s research group tracked beetle movements away from a dung pile inside a test arena – under the full starry sky, beetles took about 40 seconds to get out of the arena, compared to about 120 under complete darkness. More interesting, though, are the patterns of the beetle tracks – when no stars are visible, the beetles wander about in vain, going around in circles and often ending up back at the dung heap they’re trying to escape (have a look at Figure 1 here).

Any nocturnal animal, bird or insect needs to see the stars or the moon to navigate and orient themselves – this in turn affects their foraging, reproduction, communication and, ultimately, their survival. If the stars disappear from our skies permanently, these animals will most likely follow.

Sadly, light pollution has conquered the stars in many parts of the world. Recent estimates indicate that 80% of the United States and 60% of Europe live under a night sky that is brighter than the light of a full moon in the clearest conditions! One fifth of the world’s population can’t even see the Milky Way anymore. Even worse, 40% of the US and 17% of Europe will never truly experience night time – the brightness of their night sky is above the night vision threshold, so their eyes will never need to adapt to seeing in the dark.

So, for the sake of our children getting to see the magnificence of the Milky Way, for the sake of the dung beetles and every other nocturnal navigator, we need to dim the lights.

And here’s a great incentive: Venice is the only city in Italy where you can view the Milky Way from the city centre on a clear night. Why? Because of the “unique low-intensity romantic lighting” that the city is known for.


The magnificent Milky Way (Source: Wally Pacholka, National Geographic)
The magnificent Milky Way (Source: Wally Pacholka, National Geographic)

© Manu Saunders 2013

11 thoughts on “Romancing the Stars

  1. Emily Heath February 6, 2013 / 7:02 AM

    In London I never get to see many stars. Shame on all the companies who leave their lights blazing overnight.


    • manuelinor February 6, 2013 / 7:40 AM

      Yes, it is a shame – a star-filled sky is much more inspiring to look at than electric glow!


  2. uknowispeaksense February 6, 2013 / 8:20 AM

    I’m reminded of Melman and Monty in the movie, ‘Madagascar’ when Monty is dreaming of escaping to “The Wild” reflecting on a single star, he can see from his pen in the New York zoo, which Melman casually points out is a helicopter. It was an important moment in the film and I can only imagine the message was lost on the target audience, who sadly are the ones who will be more affected by the negative impacts from population growth and subsequent development than my generation.

    I think Manu, you missed an opportunity for a “that’s how I roll” pun.


    • manuelinor February 6, 2013 / 8:41 AM

      great comment! Thanks for reminding me of that scene!
      Oh, and I was definitely ‘on a roll’ with the puns, but I didn’t want to overdo it 😉


  3. metan February 10, 2013 / 10:35 PM

    Every night when I take the dog out before I go to bed I stand on the back verandah and enjoy the stars.
    We are really lucky as we are far enough away from everything that we get to see a multitude of stars even on the brightest night, a dark night shows the Milky Way looking absolutely splendid and means I never complain about having to wait for the dog! 🙂


    • manuelinor February 11, 2013 / 8:00 AM

      We do the same thing! 🙂 Yes, the sky is beautiful down here and we are so lucky in (most of) Australia to still be able to see the stars – I can’t imagine what it must be like around cities in parts of America or Europe!


  4. bookishnature February 16, 2013 / 4:11 AM

    Great post – full of fascinating threads of thought and detail…

    Living on the edge of a city now, I so miss the night skies where I grew up (a village with no street lighting). Some nights, the spectacle of the stars is still wonderful here – but I often dream of how much more magnificent it would be without the light pollution. I shall think of dung beetles with extra sympathy now! 🙂



    • manuelinor February 16, 2013 / 2:46 PM

      thank you! I grew up away from electric lights too – the night sky as it is meant to be seen is truly breathtaking…I don’t think another word could describe it with justice. If I didn’t get a sore neck looking up at it, I’d stare all night!! 🙂


  5. Into the Eremozoic June 3, 2013 / 5:35 AM

    Very nice post – I couldn’t agree more about the need for darker skies, both for wildlife and for us.


What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s