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NATURAL HISTORY

AMERICAN BURYING BEETLE } Nichrophorus americanus

FAMILY: Silphidae

DESCRIPTION: At about one to 1.5 inches in length, the American burying beetle is the largest species of its genus in North America. Its body is shiny black, with hardened protective wing covers called elytra that meet in the middle of its back, each boasting two scallop-shaped orange-red markings. The beetle also has an orange-red marking on the shield over its midsection and on the top of its head, as well as large antennae with orange clubs at the tips.

HABITAT: The American burying beetle has been found in various habitat types, from open fields to grasslands to different types of forest.

RANGE: The historical distribution of the American burying beetle included the eastern half of North America. It is currently found in eight states — Rhode Island, Massachusetts, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma.

MIGRATION: This beetle does not migrate.

BREEDING: American burying beetles meet their mates after males smell a freshly dead mammal or bird and converge on the carcass, with females arriving shortly thereafter, attracted by male pheromones. A competition ensues, typically won by the largest male and female, which together then remove hair or feathers from the carcass and bury it as a “brood ball,” coating it with oral and anal embalming secretions before mating with each other. Within 24 hours, the female lays eggs near the carcass; grubs hatch three or four days later and are raised in the carcass, which provides them with food when they can feed themselves. The larvae receive care from both parents throughout the time they feed and grow.

LIFE CYCLE: American burying beetles live for about a year.

FEEDING: Burying beetles eat carrion, as well as the larvae and eggs of flies.

THREATS: This beetle is seriously threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, including the destruction of habitat that would result from the construction of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline (as well as any leaks that might occur after construction). The beetle is also endangered by diseases, pesticides and artificial lighting that affects populations of nocturnal insects.

POPULATION TREND: There are perhaps fewer than 1,000 individuals in the only remaining population east of the Mississippi River, and the Oklahoma, Arkansas and South Dakota populations (currently being inventoried) are of uncertain size. South Dakota estimates over 500 square miles of occupied habitat with a high population density. The Nebraska population occupies a large geographic area of the Sand Hills.

Photo courtesy USFWS