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Category — American Burying Beetle

Fernald or Bust

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.

ABB at the release site.

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!

Organizing the reintroduction.

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.

Securing one of the release areas.

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.

A HUGE shout out to my volunteers Sam, Scott, April and Becky for helping me raise beetles all year!

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.

Counting American Burying Beetle larvae that resulted from the 2013 release. These were the larvae found in just one of the holes.

July 11, 2013   2 Comments

Beetle Mania!

Here at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden we are gearing up for our first ever American burying beetle (ABB) reintroduction! Over the past year my wonderful volunteers, coworkers and I have raised an army of these federally endangered beauties to release at the nearby Fernald Preserve. The date is set, and the beetles are ready to go. On the 13th of May we will set free over 200 ABBs!

Each container holds an individual beetle ready for release.

American Burying Beetle rearing room. Each container holds an individual beetle ready for reintroduction.

It is wonderfully poetic that an endangered species is to be released at such a rehabilitated location. The Fernald Preserve was born through environmental remediation. It is the product of a super fund ($4.4 billion) clean-up, managed by the US Department of Energy and opened in 2006. It was formerly the Feed Materials Production Center, which ceased operations in 1989. Fernald is now home to gorgeous upland and riparian forests, prairies, savannahs, and wetlands. It now provides habitats for over 200 species of birds, 30 species of mammals, 28 species of reptiles and amphibians, 19 species of fish and immeasurable numbers of invertebrates.

Fernald Preserve near the reintroduction location.

Fernald Preserve near the reintroduction location.

As I talked about in my previous blog, ABBs have a strange but important role in our environment. Each pair of beetles released will be placed in the ground with some carrion upon which they will raise their larvae. I’ll return to Fernald two weeks after the release to check on the breeding success. Two months later hundreds of brand new wild-born ABBs will emerge from the ground ready to play their part in the ecosystem as decomposers.

May 9, 2013   No Comments

American Burying Beetles

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.

American Burying Beetles preparing carrion.

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. [Read more →]

February 8, 2013   No Comments