With its shiny, black and fiery body and orange-tipped antennae, the American burying beetle is a vibrant beauty of the bug world. The insect’s occupation, though, is a little less glamorous. After sniffing out a freshly dead animal from up to two miles away, the beetle joins a mate in burying the carcass, stripping it of fur or feathers, rolling it into a ball, and covering it in oral and anal fluids to preserve it as a shelter and food source for the pair’s litter of lucky larvae.
While this beetle’s nesting ritual is a little on the noir side, it’s also critical to the function of the ecosystems it inhabits. The American burying beetle is one of nature’s most efficient recyclers, feeding and sheltering its own brood while simultaneously returning nutrients to the earth to nourish vegetation and keeping ant and fly populations in check. Unfortunately, the beetle’s own populations — which once flourished in 35 U.S. states, plus parts of Canada — were in dramatic decline throughout most of the 20th century due to a complex list of threats, with habitat loss, pesticides and disease likely topping it.
Today the American burying beetle is hailed as an Endangered Species Act success story, having bounced back from just one known population at the time of its listing in 1989 to six native and introduced populations. The beetle's most recent victory was in November 2015, when — largely to pressure from the Center and our many supporters — the Obama administration rejected the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would've devastated some of this creature's last remaining habitat (as well as habitat for many other rare species, like prairie dogs, whose carcasses are prime burying-beetle sustenance). But the beetle isn’t safe from extinction yet; we'll continue to watchdog its progress and protect it from future and current dangers.
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1989 federal Endangered Species Act listing