Dung Beetle Myths

Minotaur Beetle Typhaeus typhoeusThe universe does provide and it leads you along interesting paths if you let it. We found a dead beetle. It was gigantic so it was potential fodder for the blog. It was in pristine condition for photos so I took a bunch and set them aside for a rainy blog day. It was interesting but not as eye catching as the tree blobs or giant Amazonian ant.

A few days later I was outside with our dog Dakota. She’s always up for a good blog entry and today didn’t disappoint. Research into her latest antics uncovered bizarre South American creation myths and why the Ancient Egyptians believed that mummies would rise again.

We adopted Dakota at seven months old and she was malnourished. Outdoors she spends a lot of time foraging for food. I suspect that she developed that habit during her hunger months. Even after two years of regular meals with us, she still forages.

I’d never been able to identify what she’s actually eating (except for the toad incident) and it worried me because many things are poisonous to dogs. The grass was damp from an early rain and the sun was shining high in the sky. Dakota had found a tidbit to eat and I was determined to see it.

Rabbit turdsShe’d discovered a pile of little dung pellets, smaller than a dime and rounded. Apparently dung pellets are a delicacy for dogs because she found them quite tasty. I was attempting to train myself that such things are a photo op but didn’t think of it until we’d gone back indoors. I hadn’t marked the spot. It took an hour of searching to find the pellets again and there were only two left.

So began the search for the identity of the turds and my first guess was turtle remembering our recent turtle escapade, so I typed “turtle dung” and “turtle turds” into Google and found that no, Dakota’s tasty treats were not the product of turtles. I tried “rabbit turds” and “rabbit dung” and sure enough the turds were a perfect match.

But more interesting was what else turned up in a Google image search for “rabbit dung”. Beetle photos appeared which perfectly matched our beetle.

It turned out to be a Minotaur Beetle aka Minotaur Dung Beetle, scientifically known as Typhaeus typhoeus and you guessed it, this big black beetle feeds on dung, rabbit dung and sheep dung being of particular interest.

Dung beetles burrow into the earth where they lay their eggs and store the dung turds. Each turd has its own chamber off the tunnel. A single egg is laid into each dung turd which becomes food for the larva when it hatches.

There are three categories of dung beetle: tunnellers, dwellers and rollers. Most dung beetles hold the dung with their front legs and drag it backwards toward their nest. Minotaur Beetles do not drag the turd, they roll the dung pellets with their back legs putting them into the Roller Beetle category. Some species of dung roller beetles can roll turds up to 50 times their own weight. The males collect the dung and the females dig the burrows which can be more than three feet deep.

Minotaur Beetle Typhaeus typhoeusThe male Minotaur Beetle is most distinctive for its horns. Three horns protrude from its thorax which are used to battle other male Minotaurs. The females do not possess the horns.

Dung Beetles serve a very useful purpose in the world. They eliminate dung. There are dung beetle species for every type of dung known to man, including human dung. Most dung beetles can live three to five years and a single dung beetle can bury 250 times its own weight in one night making the dung beetle one of the world’s most useful insects. Up to 16,000 dung beetles have been counted on one heap of elephant dung. They are indeed nature’s garbage collectors.

One of the largest and most common species of dung beetle is the Dor Beetle which often has a colony of mites living on its underbelly giving it the nickname Lousy Watchman. It is very similar in appearance to the Minotaur Beetle but lacks the horns.

The Ancient Egyptians revered dung beetles which they called Scarab Beetles. The Scarab Beetle was so revered in Egypt that it became a religious symbol. The Egyptian scarab dung beetle Kheper aegyptiorum was a brightly colored species of metallic pink, green or black and is now quite rare. Another revered dung beetle in Egypt is the more common black Scarabaeus sacer.

The male dung beetle creates a ball of dung from which a new Scarab Beetle emerges. Since only the males collect the dung and form it into balls, the Ancient Egyptians believed they did not need a female to make babies, only dung.

The Ancient Egyptians compared the movement of the sun across the sky from dawn to dusk as being like the Scarab Beetle rolling dung until it disappeared down into his burrow (the sunset, or death of the sun every night). The rising of the sun in the morning was a rebirth similar to the emergence of a newly hatched dung beetle. Therefore if the sun and the Scarab Beetle could be reborn then why couldn’t humans?

Some scholars believe that the Egyptian mummy was an imitation of the pupa of a dung beetle. The pupa protects the body of the dung beetle while it transforms for the rebirth, so logic would dictate that if the human body could be thus protected, it would undergo transformations that would allow it to resurrect and be brand new again. The Ancient Egyptians connected the old beetle who sinks down into the ground and the young beetle which later emerges, believing the new beetle to be a direct resurrection of the old beetle.

The Scarab Beetle was also linked to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ by one of the four original bishops of the church, Saint Ambrose of Milan circa 300 A.D. The earliest Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint, which includes several books not found in the Hebrew Bible commonly known as the Apocrypha, has the only biblical reference to beetles in the passage Habakkuk 2:11.

Saint Ambrose compared the Resurrection of Jesus Christ to Habakkuk’s beetle five different times as did St. Augustine and St. Cyril of Alexandria. The German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher in the 1600s also compared Jesus Christ and his resurrection to the Scarab Beetle.

South American Indian tribes revered the dung beetle which played a big role in their creation myths, sometimes as The Creator himself. One creation myth has a Scarab Beetle named Aksak creating man and woman from clay. Imagine thinking of a dung beetle as the creator of man!

The dung beetle dog tale is featured in the book “The Wizard of Awe: An Acre of America Backyard Nature Series” which is an expanded version of the nature blog with photos and stories. These books are all available on Kindle. The adult series is also available in paperback.

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