Numbers of “nature’s gravedigger” up in New England
The idea of peaceful island living appeals to many people. But for one insect, island living is not an idyllic vacation—it’s a last hope for survival.
Once abundant throughout the northeastern U.S. and several other pockets of the country, the American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) is now isolated to just two islands in New England and portions of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas and South Dakota.
Block Island, off Rhode Island’s southern coast, is home to New England’s last self-sustaining colony of this beetle, which is recognized by the orange bands on each wing cover and the splash of orange on the pronotum (necks). Scientists for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state of Rhode Island have studied and monitored the population since the species was listed as endangered in 1989.
Chris Raithel, a wildlife biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, shares his observation of this beetle’s distinctive abilities to scavenge for food and a place to breed:
“The beetle climbs the carcass [of a baby pheasant] and begins to broadcast alluring scents into the air. Soon other beetles arrive. In an insect’s version of “king of the hill,” male and female beetles fight until a single pair remains. They have claimed the prize…one beetle crawls beneath the carcass; the other anchors itself by grabbing some strong grass with its rear legs and then clutches the pheasant’s body with its front legs. One beetle heaves while the other pulls…this feat of muscular leverage would make Archimedes proud.”
Not only are these beetles incredibly strong for their size and excellent recyclers, they are also dutiful parents. American burying beetles treat their young with great care and supervision. The larval beetles beg for food and are directly fed by parents. Raithel writes: “The amount of parental investment is enormous for relatively few young,” and is unique in the insect world.
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However, despite these remarkable qualities, the species began to dwindle in the 1920s. Changes in land use affected the two elements the beetle depends on most: the availability of carrion for food, and competition with other predators and scavengers like foxes and crows. …Keep reading this story!