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

IS Militants Release 49 Turkish Hostages

Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency reports that no ransom was paid and no conditions accepted for the hostages' release; few details of the release are known More

Photogallery IS Attacks Send Thousands of Syrian Kurds Fleeing to Turkey

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 300 Kurdish fighters crossed into Syria from Turkey to defend a Kurdish area from attack by the Islamic militants More

Video Sierra Leone's Ebola Lockdown Continues

Thousands of health workers are going door to door in the West African country of 6 million, informing people of how to avoid Ebola, handing out soap 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.
Fears Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’i
X
Jeff Seldin
September 20, 2014 10:28 PM
Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Fears Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’

Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Obama Goes to UN With Islamic State, Ebola on Agenda

President Obama goes to the United Nations General Assembly to rally nations to support a coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. He also will look for nations to back his plan to fight the Ebola virus in West Africa. As VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports, Obama’s efforts reflect new moves by the U.S. administration to take a leading role in addressing world crises.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Militant Assault in Syria Displaces Thousands of Kurds

A major assault by Islamic State militants on Kurds in Syria has sent a wave of new refugees to the Turkish border, where they were stopped by Turkish border security. Turkey is already hosting about 700,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war between the government and the opposition. But the government in Ankara has a history of strained relations with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Zlatica Hoke reports Turkey is asking for international help.
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid