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American Burying Beetle

American burying Beetle, The is the largest native member of the carrion beetle family Silphidae, of which there are 31 species in North America and 570 species worldwide.

American Burying Beetle

American Burying Beetle

About an inch and a half long, the American burying beetle can be identified by its striking, distinctive coloring. Its body is shiny black, and on its wing covers are four scalloped, orange-red markings. Smaller relatives look similar, but most distinctively, the American burying beetle has an orange-red marking on its pronotum, the large shield-like area just behind the head. The American burying beetle has an orange facial marking and orange tips on the antennae. The beetles are strong fliers, moving as far as 1.5 miles a night.

preference for grasslands and the open understory of oak-hickory forests. However, the beetles are carrion (animals which are dead) specialists in that they need a carcass the size of a dove or chipmunk in order to raise their young. Carrion availability may be a key factor to where the species can prosper.

Life Cycle : A male/female pair may move mouse-size remains several feet until a substrate soft enough for burial is found. It remains unknown how a pair of beetles can “agree” on a burial site or how they are able to keep the carcass moving uniformly in one direction. The soil at the burial site is loosened by “plowing” through it in much the same fashion as does a bulldozer. Soil is moved upward and crumbles, and roots are chewed through. Gradually, soil from beneath the carcass is displaced to the side, and the carcass settles into the ground and is buried under several inches of soil. Immediate, nocturnal burial is important because it prevents flies, active during the-day, from laying eggs on the remains.

After burial, the beetles strip away fur or feathers and work the mass into a compact ball. They will then “inoculate” the remains with secretions that preserve the carrion and modify the course of decomposition. The female constructs a short chamber above the carrion in which she lays from 10 to 30 eggs. Returning to the carcass, she prepares a conical depression on top of it. Both parents regurgitate droplets of partly digested food into the depression. The fluid accumulates as food for the larvae that hatch in a few days.

American Burying Beetles

American Burying Beetles

The larvae receive parental care during the entire time they are feeding and growing. This is an extremely rare and highly developed behavior in insects, a condition normally found only in the social bees, wasps, ants and termites. Both adults regurgitate food to begging larvae. The larvae grow rapidly and are soon able to feed themselves. The adults continually tend the carcass, removing fungi and covering the carrion ball with an antibacterial secretion. Sometimes the size of the brood is too large to be successfully reared on a small carcass, and both adults will cannibalize small larvae. After about a week, the larvae have consumed all but the bones of the carcass, and the adults fly away. Living only one season, the adults soon die. The young pupate in the nearby soil and emerge as adults about a month later. Overwintering is in the adult stage.

American burying beetles are unique among the silphids because they break the cycle of competition at the food source and provide their larvae a considerably safer, relatively predator-free subterranean environment in which to develop.

Burying beetles are important recyclers of nutrients in terrestrial ecosystems. By burying and eating carrion , they remove a source of food from flies, which are often pests and health threats. Burying beetles also feed on fly eggs and larvae, helping to reduce their numbers. Very little is known about the decline of the American burying beetle.

American Burying Beetle

American Burying Beetle larvae

The factor(s) responsible for its near extinction apparently have not affected other closely related species. For this reason, the usual causes of declines or extinctions, such as habitat loss, do not seem to be valid. Some experts hypothesize that the American burying beetle’s decline began with the loss of the huge numbers of passenger pigeons and other formerly numerous birds such as prairie chickens, wild turkeys, and possibly waterfowl. The young of these species would have provided the preferred carcass size at the optimum time for burying beetle reproduction. An understanding of the cause or causes for the decline of this formerly common species may be important in preventing similar declines of other related species.

Management :There are perhaps fewer than 1,000 individuals in the only remaining population east of the Mississippi River, and the Oklahoma and Arkansas populations (currently being inventoried) are of uncertain size. The size of the Nebraska population is also unknown, but fewer specimens have been sighted here than elsewhere. The cause for the decline of the species is complex and difficult. However, in order to implement an effective recovery program and to locate additional populations, it is necessary to understand the possible factors influencing the decline.

The prevailing theory explaining the disappearance of the American burying beetle involves habitat fragmentation. Fragmentation of large expanses of natural habitat changed the species composition and lowered the reproductive success of prey species required by the American burying beetle for optimum reproduction. Fragmentation also resulted in an increase in edge habitat that supported and increased the occurrence and density of vertebrate predators and scavengers such as crows, raccoons, foxes, opossums and skunks, all of which compete with the burying beetle for available carrion. Fragmented habitats not only support fewer or lower densities of indigenous species that historically may have supported burying beetle populations, but there is also now a great deal more competition for those limited resources among the “new” predator/scavenge community.

American Burying Beetles

American Burying Beetles

Determining a single cause for the decline of the American burying beetle would simplify and facilitate its recovery. Unfortunately, the decline is probably the result of an interplay of several complex factors that include (1) artificial lighting tha decreases populations of nocturnally active insects, (2) changing sources of carrion because of habitat alteration, (3) isolation of preferred habitat because of land use changes, (4) increased edge effect harboring more vertebrate competitors for carrion and (5) the possibility of reduced reproduction because of some genetic characteristic of the species.

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