News / Science & Technology

American Burying Beetle Faces Extinction

A necessary part of our ecosystem, the once-common insect is now critically endangered, found in only a handful of US states

A pair of American burying beetles prepares to bury a bobwhite quail carcass.
A pair of American burying beetles prepares to bury a bobwhite quail carcass.

Multimedia

Audio
TEXT SIZE - +

The American burying beetle is one of nature's most efficient scavengers, breaking down dead animals and recycling their nutrients back into the environment.

A hundred years ago, the insect was common across North America. Today, it's down to a handful of small populations, inhabiting less than ten percent of the species' historic range.

Now, a group of dedicated supporters is working to restore this critically endangered species.  

Natural recyclers

On a dark summer night, a couple finds a dead body in a field. They remove the bones, and bury it. Later, they will use the remains to feed their young.

A female American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus)
A female American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus)

That's business as usual for Nicrophorus americanus, the American burying beetle.

Bob Merz of the St. Louis Zoo in Missouri is one of the beetle's biggest fans. According to Merz, these thumb-sized, black-red-and-orange insects can fly almost five kilometers in a single night, in search of small dead animals or birds. When they find one, they fight over it. After the winning male and female claim the body, they move it to a safer place.

"And how they move it is they will lay on their backs underneath the carcass and use their legs to push it kind of over them," Merz says. "And so they create this little conveyor belt basically of 12 little beetle legs that kind of move the carcass to a site."

There, the beetles dig a hole, sometimes as much as a meter deep under the body, concealing it in the subterranean chamber. They remove the animal's bones, hair, feathers, or fur, and spray the carcass with preservative secretions, forming a kind of gooey meatball.

The larvae of the American burying beetle
The larvae of the American burying beetle

Important to the ecosystem

Then the beetles mate. The female lays her eggs on or near the carcass, and in just two or three days, they hatch.

"This is where it gets kind of cool," says Merz. "The beetles will stay with their young and raise them."

When it's feeding time, the adults make a noise by rubbing their flight wings against their hard upper shell. "That noise then calls their larvae, which are these tiny white little puffy wormlike looking things," Merz explains. The larvae sit up and beg for food, something like baby birds. "And the parents will then tear off pieces of meat, and regurgitate them back, into the mouths of their young. And they are cute," laughs Merz. "For a beetle grub, they are cute, they really are."

And important to the ecosystem. Once they've matured into adults, the beetles will repeat the cycle, breaking down more carcasses to feed a new generation of young.

Declining species

No one knows for sure what caused the beetles' decline. Theories include pesticides, light pollution, a decrease in appropriately-sized prey, and the most likely culprit: habitat loss and fragmentation.

Bob Merz and Dan Koch of the St. Louis Zoo prepare to check a pitfall trap for beetles.
Bob Merz and Dan Koch of the St. Louis Zoo prepare to check a pitfall trap for beetles.

Merz and his team from the St. Louis Zoo have been looking for the beetle in Missouri since 2004. Every year, they set out pitfall traps: two-liter plastic buckets buried in the soil, with pieces of slightly rotten chicken for bait.

Dan Koch works on beetle recovery efforts for the zoo. He says the field surveys can be a pretty smelly business. "The maggots still get in there and lay eggs, and you'll have chicken that really is just a goo of maggots, it's not even chicken anymore by the time you pull up the traps."

They haven't found the American burying beetle in Missouri. But they have successfully raised more than 5,000 thousand of them at the zoo.

Reintroduction


Retired attorney Kay Thurman volunteers on the project, helping to feed the beetles. She says it's gratifying to be able to work hands-on with an endangered species.

"It isn't like I can go out and feed a cheetah, or save a cheetah," says Thurman. "But this is really an opportunity for a volunteer to get in here and work directly with individual animals that we're trying to propagate and preserve here at the zoo."

Some of those beetles have been released in the Midwestern state of Ohio, to try to re-establish a population there. Other captive-reared beetles have been reintroduced on the island of Nantucket, off the northeastern U.S. coast.

And now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering proposals to try to re-establish more populations in other areas - including in Missouri. Those reintroduction plans haven't been finalized yet.

In the meantime, Merz says he and his team will keep doing their part to bring the endangered beetle back.

You May Like

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 More

Open Source Seeds Hit the Market, Raise Awareness

First open source seeds include 29 new varieties of broccoli, celery, kale, quinoa and other vegetables and grains More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid