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American burying beetle

The American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) is a large, spectacularly colored orange and black insect. It formerly occurred across a vast range from Nova Scotia south to Florida, west to Texas, and north to South Dakota. It was documented in 150 counties in 34 states, the District of Columbia, and three Canadian provinces. Total historical numbers are not known, but the species may well have occurred in the tens of millions. The burying beetle's dramatic decline has been called "difficult to imagine" and “one of the most disastrous declines of an insect’s range ever to be recorded” [2]. It was extirpated from mainland New England through New Jersey by the 1920s, from the entire mainland east of the Appalachian Mountains by the 1940s, and from the mainland east of the Mississippi River by 1974. It is currently absent from about 90% of its historic range.

The largest of North America's 32 burying beetles, N. americanus is uniquely dependant upon quail-size carrion weighing 100-200 grams [1, 15]. Males smell freshly dead mammals and birds (and occasionally even fish) within an hour of death and up to two miles away. Females arrive shortly thereafter, attracted by male pheromones. A competition ensues and is typically won by the largest male and female. Lying on their backs, the winning couple inches into an excavated burial chamber. During this time, orange phoretic mites borne by the beetles leap to the carcass, cleaning it of fly eggs and microbes. The buried carcass is relieved of its feathers, feet, tail, ears and/or fur. Now known as a "brood ball," it is coated with oral and anal embalming secretions to retard fungal and bacterial growth. The beetles then mate and within 24 hours lay eggs in the soil near the carcass. White grubs emerge three or four days later and are carried to the carcass. The parents also defend the grubs from predators and feed them regurgitated food. The American burying beetle is one of the few non-colonial insects in the world to practice dual parenting. In approximately a week, the grubs leave the chamber and pupate into adults.

The cause of the American burying beetle's decline is not well understood, but the most cogent hypotheses see it as victim of interacting food chain disturbances which reduced the number of large carcasses [2]. The passenger pigeon, which formerly occurred in the billions, was an ideal size. It was last seen in 1914 and was greatly reduced in number in the decades preceding. Its decline and disappearance occurred just prior to the burying beetle's. Other endangered or greatly reduced carrion of ideal size include the black-footed ferret, northern bobwhite, and greater prairie chicken. Competition for dwindling carrion numbers was exacerbated by increasing numbers of mid-sized predators following the extinction or decline of large predators such as the eastern cougar, mountain lion, and gray wolf. In their absence, coyotes, raccoons, fox and other mid-size scavengers increased in number and consumed more quail-size carrion. Finally, as habitats became more fragmented mid-size predators were increasingly able to exploit forest and grass land edges, taking more carrion.

At the time of listing in 1989, three populations were known: one on Block Island, Rhode Island and two in eastern Oklahoma [1]. Since then, populations have been discovered in South Dakota (1995), Nebraska (1992), Kansas (1997), Arkansas (1992), and Texas (2003) [3]. The burying beetle has been reintroduced to Massachusetts and Ohio. The total number of captive and introduced populations increased from one to six between 1990 and 2005 [7, 11, 13, 10].

RHODE ISLAND. Located 12 miles off the south coast of Rhode Island, Block Island supports the last natural population of the American burying beetle east of the Mississippi River. The island is free of foxes, raccoons, skunks, and coyotes. A study of one-third of the population determined that it was relatively stable between 1991 and 1997 (mean=184), and then steadily grew to 577 in 2005 [8]. This population served as the source for the successful Roger Williams Park Zoo captive breeding program initiated in 1994 and for direct translocations to Nantucket and Penikese Island.

MASSACHUSETTS. The American burying beetle was extirpated from Massachusetts shortly after 1940 [1] and was reintroduced to the 70 acre Penikese Island in Buzzards Bay over a four year period between 1990 and 1993. Reintroduced beetles initially came from a Boston University captive breeding population originating from Block Island stock [6]. The population persisted at low numbers through 2002, but was not located in 2003, 2004, and 2005. On Nantucket, 2,892 beetles were introduced from the Roger Williams Park Zoo between 1994 and 2005 to the Audubon Society’s Sesachacha Heathland Wildlife Sanctuary (east side of the Island) and the Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s Sanford Farm (west side of the island) [5, 6, 21]. Existing and new beetles were trapped and provisioned with quail carcasses each summer to boost larva production [5]. The introduction program ended in 2005 in order to determine if population is self-sustaining [6]. No population estimates or trends are available.

The Roger Williams Park Zoo program produced 4,551 adult beetles between 1995 and 2005, releasing 2,742 back to the wild [21].

OHIO. The American burying beetle was extirpated from Ohio shortly after 1974 when it was last seen near Old Man's Cave in Hocking Hills State Park [9, 10]. A short-lived captive population derived from Block Island stock was established in 1991 at the Insectarium of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden [1]. In July, 1998, Ohio became the site of the first mainland introduction when 35 pairs of beetles taken from a wild population near Fort Chaffee, Arkansas were introduced to the Waterloo Wildlife Experiment Station in southeast Ohio [10]. The Waterloo population was augmented in 1999 (20 pairs and 15 females) and 2000 (33 pairs and four males), but not 2001 or 2002. Additional augmentation occurred in 2003. A captive population established at Ohio State University in 2002 produced 828 beetles as of 2004; 199 of these were used for reintroductions in 2003 and 156 were reintroduced in 2004. The Wilds (managed by the Columbus Zoo) plans to create a second captive colony [10] and a second reintroduction is planned for the Athens District of the Wayne National Forest [11].

MISSOURI. The American burying beetle was extirpated from Missouri in the early 1980s [1]. It has not been relocated despite repeated and recent surveys [12]. A captive breeding population was established at the Monsanto Insectarium, St. Louis Zoo in 2004 (with 10 pairs from Ohio State University) and 2005 (with wild beetles from Arkansas) [7, 15]. Six-hundred-fifty-four adults were produced as of June 2005, 50 of which were transferred to Ohio State University. Plans are being developed to introduce the species to The Nature Conservancy and Missouri Department of Conservation lands. [7].

OKLAHOMA. The presence of American burying beetles has recently been confirmed in 22 eastern Oklahoma counties, reported but unconfirmed in two more, and likely to occur in nine more [16]. The largest known concentrations are a population at Camp Gruber and a smaller one on private timber lands held by Weyerhaeuser International. Captures (not to be confused with population estimates) at Camp Gruber fluctuated around a mean of 213 adults between 1992 and 2003 without discernable trend. Captures at Weyerhaeuser had a mean of 52 adults between 1997 and 2003, with no apparent trend. Additional post-listing trend data is unavailable for Oklahoma.

NEBRASKA. The American burying beetle was rediscovered in Nebraska in 1992 [18]. Between 1995 and 1997, nearly 1,000 individuals were trapped or collected in the upland grasslands and cedar tree savannas of the dissected loess hills south of the Platte River in Dawson, Gosper, and Lincoln Counties of Nebraska. The population is estimated at about 3,000 adults.

SOUTH DAKOTA. The American burying beetle was rediscovered in South Dakota in 1995 and is believed to have a statewide population in excess of 500 adults [17].

ARKANSAS. The American burying beetle was rediscovered in Arkansas in 1992 [3]

KANSAS. The American burying beetle was rediscovered in Kansas in 1997 [19].

TEXAS: The American burying beetle, thought to be extirpated from Texas since the 1930s, was rediscovered in 2003 [3]. Two populations are now known to exist, one on a military base, the other on a Nature Conservancy preserve.

The American burying beetle recovery plan states: "The interim objective [extinction avoidance] will be met when the extant eastern and western populations are sufficiently protected and maintained, and when at least two additional self-sustaining populations of 500 or more beetles are established, one in the eastern and one in the western part of the historical range. Reclassification will be considered when (a) 3 populations have been established (or discovered) within each of 4 geographical areas (Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, and the Great Lake states), (b) each population contains 500+ adults, (c) each population is self-sustaining for 5 consecutive years, and, ideally, each primary population contains several satellite populations.” It is estimate that, if the recovery criteria are met, reclassification could be initiated as early as 2012.

[1] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1991. American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) recovery plan. Newton Corner, MA.
[2] Sikes, D.S. 2002. A review of hypotheses of decline of the endangered American burying beetle (Silphidae: Nicrophorus americanus Olivier). Journal of Insect Conservation 6: 103–113
[3] Godwin, W.B. and V. Minich. 2005. Status of the American Burying Beetle, Nicrophorus americanus Olivier, (Coleoptera: Silphidae) at Camp Maxey, Lamar County, Texas. Interagency Final Report to Texas Army National Guard. 19 pp.
[4] Peyton, M.M. 1997. Notes on the range and population size of the American Burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) in the dissected hills south of the Platte River in central Nebraska. Paper presented at the 1997 Platte River Basin Ecosystem Symposium, Feb. 18-19, 1997 Kearney Holiday Inn Kearney, Nebraska.
[5] Mckenna-Foster, A.A., M.L. Prospero, L. Perrotti, M. Amaral, W.T. Maple, and R.S. Kennedy. 2005. American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) survey and reintroduction to Nantucket, MA, 2004-2005. Abstract presented at the First Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative Conference, September 24, 2005, Coffin School, Egan Institute of Marine Studies, Nantucket, MA.
[6] Amaral, M. 2005. Personal communication with Michael Amaral, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Concord, NH, November 28, 2005.
[7] Homer, P. 2005. Missouri's Threatened and Endangered Species Accomplishment Report: July 1, 2004 - June 30, 2005. Missouri Department of Conservation.
[8] Raithel, C. 2005. American burying beetle, Southwest Block Island trend, 1991-2005. Spreadsheet provided by Christopher Raithel, Rhode Island Dept of Environmental Management, Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife, November 23, 2005.
[9] Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife. 2005. American Burying Beetle, Nicrophorus americanus. Website (www.dnr.state.oh.us/wildlife/Resources/projects/beetle/beetle.htm) accessed January 28, 2006.
[10] Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife. 2004-2005 Wildlife Population Status and Hunting Forecast.
[11] Wayne National Forest. 2004. Schedule of Proposed Action, 10-01/04-12/31/04.
[12] Stevens, J. and B. Merz. American Burying Beetle Survey in Missouri. St. Louis Zoo, Department of Invertebrate. Website (http://biology4.wustl.edu/tyson/projectszoo.html) accessed January 29, 2006.
[13] Dabeck, L. 2006. The American Burying Beetle Recovery Program: Saving nature's most efficient and fascinating recyclers. Roger Williams Park Zoo. Website (www.rogerwilliamsparkzoo.org/conservation/burying%20beetle%20program.cfm) accessed January 29, 2006.
[14] Kozol, A. J. 1990. NICROPHORUS AMERICANUS 1989 laboratory population at Boston University: a report prepared for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Unpublished report.
[15] Stevens, J. 2005. Conservation of the American burying beetle. CommuniQue, September, 2005:9-10.
[16] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2006. American Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus americanus). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Website (www.fws.gov/ifw2es/Oklahoma/beetle1.htm) accessed January 29, 2006.
[17] South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. 2006. The American Burying Beetle in South Dakota. Website (www.sdgfp.info/Wildlife/Diversity/ABB/abb.htm) accessed January 29, 2006.
[18] Peyton, M.M. 2003. Range and population size of the American burying beetle (Coleoptera:Silphidae) in the Dissected Hills of South-central Nebraska. Great Plains Research 13(1): 127-138
[19] Miller, E.J. and L. McDonald. 1997. Rediscovery of Nicrophorus americanus Olivier (Coleoptera Silphidae) in Kansas. The Coleopterists' Bulletin 5(1):22.
[20] Mckenna-Foster, A., W.T. Maple, and R.S. Kennedy. 2005. American Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) survey and reintroduction on Nantucket 2005. Unpublished report.
[21] Perrotti, L. 2006. Roger Williams Park Zoo American Burying Beetle Project Statistics. Spreadsheet provided by Lou Perrotti, American Burying Beetle project coordinator, Roger Williams Park Zoo, Providence, RI, February, 2006.

Banner photo © Phillip Colla