When most people think of an endangered species they think of animals like tigers, gorillas, or giant pandas. Animals like reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates are frequently overlooked, but it turns out that they too are just as negatively affected by habitat destruction and pollution. Since these animals are often thought of as “creepy-crawlies” it can be challenging to convey their importance to the public. The truth is that all animals play a critical role in the environment – even the ones that aren’t so cute and fuzzy.
Three years ago I began working with Fernald Nature Preserve and the USFWS to help bring back the critically endangered American burying beetle (ABB). After two years of preliminary surveys the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden got the green light to have our first release. On May 13, 2013 the zoo reintroduced 240 ABBs at Fernald. This is the first time that beetles bred at our zoo were released into the wild!
An American burying beetle release isn’t as simple as just opening up containers of beetles and letting them crawl away though. It is a very organized and detailed event. Before the big day we picked 120 males and 120 females and paired them together based on pedigree. On the day of the release my volunteers and I began very early in the morning. We packed the 120 pairs into coolers to keep them from overheating on the way to the release site. Once at Fernald we carried the coolers and all of our supplies into the woods to begin the reintroduction.
We start by digging 120 holes in the soil. Each hole is about 4 inches in diameter and about 6 inches deep. In each hole we placed a rat carcass that the beetles require to reproduce. Then we methodically placed the pairs of beetles on the carcasses and carefully covered the holes with plugs of soil. The area was covered in welded wire fencing and staked down to prevent scavengers like raccoons from interrupting.
After 2 weeks we went back to check on their progress. We uncovered 30% of the holes in order to get a good idea of the overall success rate of the release. I am happy to report that these endangered beetles have successfully reproduced in the wild at the Fernald Nature Preserve! This does not mean that our work is over – in fact it’s only just beginning. We will continue to reintroduce beetles at Fernald for several more years to hopefully establish a self-sufficient population.