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

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

WHO: Anti-Ebola Efforts Should Focus on West Africa

Official says WHO is 'reasonably confident' countries bordering those hardest hit by the Ebola outbreak are not seeing the virus crossing their borders More

South Sudan Crisis Threatens Development

Economic costs and lost development opportunities in South Sudan have erased what little progress the country has made since independence in 2011 More

Ukrainian PM Warns: Russia May Try to Disrupt Sunday Poll

Arseniy Yatsenyuk orders full security mobilization for parliamentary election to prevent ‘terrorist acts’ from being carried out 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.
After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rulesi
X
October 21, 2014 12:20 AM
European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Young Nairobi Tech Innovator on 'Track' in Security Business

A 24-year-old technology innovator in Nairobi has invented a tracking device that monitors and secures cars. He has also come up with what he claims is the most robust audio-visual surveillance system yet. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from the Kenyan capital, his innovations are offering alternative security solutions.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video North Carolina Emerges as Key Election Battleground

U.S. congressional midterm elections will be held on November 4th and most political analysts give Republicans an excellent chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now control. So what are the issues driving voters in this congressional election year? VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone traveled to North Carolina, one of the most politically competitive states in the country, to find out.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

All About America

AppleAndroid