(Burying) Beetlemania

Okay, their popularity might not rival that of the Fab Four, but there are plenty of burying beetle fans here in America!

In fact, one biologist recently came all the way from Oklahoma to check out the American burying beetles that call Nantucket (MA) and Block Island (RI) home. They’re not found anywhere else in the Northeast.

Biologist Anita Barstow is our head biologist for the species, which is also found in Oklahoma and a few other states. Anita was out to see how the habitat, threats and conservation strategies match up to what she’s seeing out west and south.

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American burying beetles are monitored each year on Nantucket Island and Block Island using pitfall traps like these. Similar species, such as the two Nicrophorus marginatus seen here, are also commonly captured during these surveys and are recorded to keep a complete record of the burying beetle community. Photo credit: Cindy Maynard/USFWS

The American burying beetle is sometimes referred to as “nature’s gravedigger.” This beetle is a natural recycler, ridding the surface of dead animals and returning them to the food web. And I’d argue that it’s a lot cuter to look at than some of our other recyclers (cough, vultures).

Chris Raithel, wildlife biologist for Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, studies the burying beetle:

“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.”

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After they are processed, the American burying beetles are released. Here, three beetles are getting ready to fly off, and an example of the habitat they use on Block Island can be seen in the background. Photo credit: Cindy Maynard/USFWS

Despite these wild qualities, the species began to dwindle in the 1920s. Changes in land use affected the availability of carrion for food and increased competition with other predators and scavengers like foxes and crows.

Biologists weren’t about to let this rugged creature blink out, so they started hand delivering carcasses and rearing beetles at Roger Williams Park Zoo for release. Order up!

And things are going pretty well, with at least 3,000 beetles on Block Island, and more than 3,000 that have been released on Nantucket.

So, do you have (burying) Beetlemania now?

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Anita Barstow, biologist from our Oklahoma Field Office, releases an American burying beetle on Block Island, Rhode Island, after it has been trapped, processed and marked. Photo credit: Cindy Maynard/USFWS

 

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