Occurring nearly anywhere on the African continent, Scarabaeus sacer, otherwise known as the Egyptian scarab, dung beetle, scarab beetle, ball roller or sacred scarab, make up the family Scarabaeidae, in the order Coleoptera. Scarab's are coprophagous insects (they feed on excreta), and are sturdy and very opportunistic creatures - a quality that is necessary when you never know where another meal will, quite literally, land.
Heavy bodied, oval in shape and up to 6 inches in length, the anatomy of the Scarab has evolved to be practical in every way. All species of scarab possess layered antennae as sense organs, and are distinctive for protuberances (horns) growing on the head or thorax; those on the males of many species are used in combat. Scarabs are usually divided into two groups - the scavenging dung beetles, which feed on decaying plants, and the chafers, which feed on young plants. The tip of the head of the insect is bordered with a serrated rim that is used to cut pieces of dung to a more suitable size for the animal to carry. It has broad, flattened forelegs that serve as instruments to shape the dung into balls, and it's long, thin hind legs hold the ball in place while the beetle rolls it away - propelling itself backwards with its robust forelegs.
The purpose of rolling the food ball away from the food source, and from the reach of other beetles, provides the scarab with the opportunity to bury the dung in order to be consumed in the following days. Sometimes, a male and a female scarab will join forces at a dung pat to form a brood ball, meaning that the female can then mate and fashion the ball so that she can deposit her eggs in it. When hatched, the larva will be able to instantly feed on the nutritious nest matter. Within a few months, young scarabs will emerge from the ground - since the early Egyptians were unaware that eggs had been deposited in the ball of dung, they would watch with great wonder when newborn scarab beetles would 'spontaneously' appear. It is from this behaviour that the ancient Egyptians may have derived the legend of the Sacred Scarab, for in hieroglyphics the scarab means 'to be transformed', 'become' or 'come into existence' and was a symbol of new life. To this race of people, the scarab was regarded as a symbol of immortality.
The scarab beetle was the image of self-creation for ancient Egyptians. Worshipped under the name Khepri (also known as Khepry or Khepera, meaning 'he who came forth from the earth'), the ancient sun god was conceived as a great scarab beetle rolling the sun across the heavens. Ancient Egyptian history suggests that the sunrise is caused by the scarab unfolding its wings, which stretch out as glorious colours on each side of its body, and that when if folds its wings under its dark shell at sunset, night follows.
The scarab also became a symbol of the enduring human soul as well, hence its frequent appearance, often with wings spread, in funerary art and also within the Egyptian rituals of burial, especially mummification. The Egyptians believed that intelligence came from the heart and not from the mind, and the winged scarab made sure the mummy went into the afterlife with its wits intact, and when an Egyptian was embalmed, the heart was removed and embalmed separately, with a stone scarab beetle put in its place.
An interesing point worth noting about scarab beetles is that within 30 minutes of being deposited, more than 4000 beetles may be attracted to a heap of dung. The beetles will eat, bury, roll and completely clear approximately 1.5kg of dung in under two hours - considering it has been recorded that a 5 gram beetle can roll a 250g ball of dung at a speed of 20cm per second, it makes the task of clearing the dung pile quick and easy!