Monday, July 06, 2009

ENV: American Burying Beetle

This species occurs in two Texas counties along the Red River. MikeQuinn, Austin

Moribund burial beetle getting a new lease on life

By Beth Daley, Boston Globe Staff | July 6, 2009

NANTUCKET - The undertaker of the insect world is beginning to make a
comeback from its own near-death experience.

Once, the American burying beetle - known for the unusual subterranean
habits that inspired its name - was found throughout the Northeast.
But the beetles have largely vanished from the region, except for a
population that lives on Block Island off Rhode Island.

Now, a 15-year effort to reintroduce the black-and-orange beetle is
showing signs of success, right under tourists’ feet on Nantucket. At
least 150 beetles - and probably many more - are surviving in the wild
here each year.

The insects’ chemical sensors can detect a carcass 2 miles away within
hours of an animal dying. After flying to it, a pair of beetles begin
excavating - slowly sinking the carcass into the earth and leaving
little sign on the surface that it was ever there.

Parents regurgitate food to feed larvae and continually tend the
carcass, removing fungi and covering the mushy ball with secretions.
Beetle larvae even beg for food by stroking the mandibles of the

“You just don’t see that extended parental care in insects very
often,’’ said Michael Amaral, an endangered species biologist with the
US Fish and Wildlife Service who oversees the American burying beetle

So 15 years ago, the US Fish and Wildlife’s Amaral and staff at the
Roger Williams Zoo began releasing beetles at Audubon’s Sesachacha
Heathlands Wildlife Sanctuary. They stopped in 2005 after releasing
about 3,000.

The team has caught more than 110 beetles this year. Perrotti
conservatively estimates there are 150 beetles on the island, but
there are probably many more. Last week, one was found on the western
end of the island, where a reintroduction effort was halted several
years ago.

“By the time [most species] are rare, they have lost their ecological
importance,’’ said David Wagner, professor of ecology and evolutionary
biology at the University of Connecticut.

Wagner still says they should be saved. Their impressive chemical
arsenal may one day be useful in pharmacology or biotechnology. And
since humans probably played a role in their decline, there is a moral
argument that people should try to bring them back.

Perrotti agrees and notes the bug’s reintroduction costs only about
$3,000 a year.



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