The American burying beetle (ABB) was listed as a federally endangered species in 1989. It was once found across 35 different states and 3 provinces, but is now only known to occur in just 10% of that range. The precise reason for the beetles’ decline is unknown. It is likely a concoction of changes in the past century that has ultimately led to such low wild populations. Such things as habitat fragmentation, habitat destruction, pesticide use, light pollution, increases in populations of scavengers, and even the extinction of the passenger pigeon have all contributed in some way to the beetle’s current status.
The ABB belongs to a family of beetles called Silphidae. The ABB and other silphids rely upon the carcasses of vertebrates to thrive and reproduce. The ABB requires carrion around the size of a rat or pigeon to reproduce. An ABB can “smell” a carcass from up to two miles away! Once a male and female have fought off other invertebrate competitors they will literally bury the carcass overnight. Amazingly, these beetles can handle carcasses up to 200 hundred times their size in a matter of hours.
After the pair has buried the carrion they will prepare it by pulling off any fur or feathers and covering the mass of raw meat in secretions that actually preserve the carrion and prevent it from rotting. The female will then lay eggs in a nearby tunnel. After a few days the eggs hatch and mom helps them to the preserved carcass. Under mom and dad’s supervision the larvae will consume the carcass over the next several days, leaving just the bones behind – YUM! Once the food is gone the young pupate neaby in the soil. Roughly a month and a half later they will emerge from the ground as new adult beetles.
So why should we care about this strange beetle that raises its young on dead rats? Well, foremost, they play an important role in recycling dead material back into the environment. Even the “creepy crawlies” have a specific and important role in a very delicate ecosystem and deserve our attention. Ultimately, though, it is vital to this great earth that we foster a greater respect for ALL wildlife – regardless of the number of legs it might have.
Here at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden we are currently breeding hundreds of ABBs. This summer we will be reintroducing them at a nearby site in southwest Ohio for the very first time! Other institutions have been reintroducing ABBs for the past several years with some success so I feel confident that we can help bring this beautiful beetle back to Ohio.