Sunday, October 08, 2006

Lady Madonna - The Beatles

As beetles go, the American Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) isn’t terribly ugly (this may be due to its nice black and reddish orange pattern on its back). It is a little big (about an inch). On the other hand, invertebrates need a bit more screen time on this blog, and when you’re competing with pandas and tigers, anything with more than twice as many legs as eyes fits into the ugly category.
Image from University of Nebraska State Museum
Image from University of Nebraska State Museum
There’s another thing going for this nocturnal beetle’s inclusion here. People really don’t like carrion eaters, despite their impressive ability to smell a dead body from two miles away within an hour of death. Of course, their habit for eating dead things is helpful for returning nutrients to the soil, and they even have orange mites living on them, which keep the beetle and the carcasses free of many microbes and fly eggs (nothing like a clean corpse).

The impressive part about this beetle is its childcare policy. While most insects tend to drop their eggs and either leave or die, burying beetles are almost… vertebrate in their parental care. After one finds a suitable dead thing, a dove or chipmunk, for example, it will send out a huge amount of pheromones into the air. When a potential mate shows up, the two work together to move the carcass to an acceptable location, and, once there, live up to their name. Once the body is under a few inches of soil, they strip off the skin and some appendages, and generally form the body into a flesh ball, applying excretions that stop fungal growth. The pair then mate, lay 10 to 30 eggs in an adjacent tunnel, and wait for them to hatch. Once the larvae have hatched, the adults will help them out by regurgitation feeding, a la birds, or by moving the young to particularly choice pieces of carcass.

The American burying beetle has a cause for endangerment I haven’t talked about yet: habitat fragmentation, which reduces available prey items, and increases competing scavengers, like raccoons and crows. It also separates the populations, resulting in minimized gene flow. Pesticides and light pollution (remember, they’re nocturnal) don’t help, so now the beetle exists only in isolated pockets, a shadow of its former range.

One does not normally think of breeding programs and reintroduction of insects, but they exist for the burrowing beetle. More than 200 beetles have been reintroduced into Southern Ohio since 1998, and Massachusetts has had a head-start program to bolster their burying beetle population since 1994. Many other states are doing their part to help bring this little necrophage back from the brink.

8 comments:

Crinkleroot said...

Lady Madonna? How about "I buried Paul"?

Stephanie said...

Fantastic blog topic! Let me know if you ever need any entomological help!

Garfman said...

You helped a ton, since it was mostly your site I got the information from. I'll give you a shout-out if there are any fantastically ugly bugs I need help finding information on.

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