American Burying Beetle

The American burying beetle (ABB) is one of the few insects on the Endangered Species List. It used to be widespread across eastern North America but now only exists in a few isolated areas. Populations on Nantucket and Block Island are the only groups east of the Mississippi River. The one on Block Island is a surviving population, while the one on Nantucket was reintroduced in 1994. The Maria Mitchell Association is collaborating with the Roger Williams Park Zoo and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure the survival of this unique creature. The project has been in place for 19 years, and recent, very promising results are giving it national exposure. The project is featured in a chapter in Jane Goodall’s new book Hope for Animals and Their World, in 2009, it was a front page Boston Globe article, and it appeared in the IUCN’s 2011 Re-introduction Specialists Book.

The ABB is a recycler in nature and specializes on finding and burying dead birds or mammals about the size of a small rat. It raises its young on this carcass underground in what we call a brood chamber.  Check out this video to see what they look like:

Thanks to Eric LoPresti, Julia Blyth, and Andrew Mckenna-Foster for these pictures.

  • The American burying beetle
    The American burying beetle is about one inch long and has a bright orange 'neck plate' (called a pronotum).
  • There are other species that look similar but only the ABB has the orange plate behind the head (the pronotum).
    There are other species that look similar but only the ABB has the orange plate behind the head (the pronotum).
  • We trap for the beetles early in the morning because they die in hot temperatures.
    We trap for the beetles early in the morning because they die in hot temperatures.
  • We wish all trap were like this!  During the summer, we usually only see two or three in a trap with beetles.  Many traps have no beetles.
    We wish all trap were like this! During the summer, we usually only see two or three in a trap with beetles. Many traps have no beetles.
  • Captured beetles are measured.
    Captured beetles are measured...
  • Captured beetles are then provisioned with dead quail to help them increase their numbers.
    Captured beetles are then provisioned with dead quail to help them increase their numbers.
  • The quail is placed in a starter hole with a male and female pair of beetles.
    The quail is placed in a starter hole with a male and female pair of beetles.
  • This is what we hope for!  Twelve days later, we excavate a small number of the buried quail to judge how successful the beetles were.  The grubs are baby beetles.
    This is what we hope for! Twelve days later, we excavate a small number of the buried quail to judge how successful the beetles were. The grubs are baby beetles.

This project has gone through several phases:

  1. Reintroduce the zoo reared beetles (check out the zoo’s website to learn more about this!) and monitor how well they survive year to year.
  2. Expand the trapping and quail hand-outs to drastically increase the population. In this phase we tried to trap everywhere on the island where the beetles existed.
  3. Reduce the quail hand-outs and see if the beetles can survive on their own. This is where we are now.

In the first two phases, this project proved to be the only successful reintroduction of this species in the country. Numbers drastically increased and they expanded over the eastern half of the island.

Graph showing beetles per square Km on Nantucket from 2004 through 2013.

We successfully increased the beetle numbers on Nantucket. Now we have to figure out whether their drop in population is due to fewer beetles or beetles that are more spread out.

Starting in 2011 we stopped giving quail to all the beetles we caught. We limited the number to the first 25 pairs of male and female beetles captured. This is a reduction of about 75%!  The drop in the number of beetles in 2012 and 2013 suggest that the beetles cannot survive on their own in large numbers on Nantucket.

The amount of natural carrion is probably a major limiting factor for this species. It is thought that ABBs evolved with passenger pigeons which once numbered in the billions along the east coast but now are extinct (due to human hunting).

Why should we care about this beetle? It is only one species after all! There are several very good reasons:

  1. Practically, this beetle could produce chemical compounds that will save human lives in the future. It secretes fluids that kill bacteria and act as preservatives. This could be useful in space!
  2. Ethically, what right do we humans have to let a species go extinct due to our actions (reducing ABB habitat (open land) and resources (bird populationsl))? If this beetles disappears, we will never, ever be able to get it back.
  3. Ecologically, every loss of a species in an area or ecosystem weakens the overall food chain and brings it closer to collapse. If we keep losing species, eventually we will lose the things we depend on for survival. Healthy wetlands purify our waters, healthy oceans create our oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide, and healthy landscapes provide the pollinators that make our food possible. These could all disappear.

In addition to strengthening Nantucket’s ecosystems, the reintroduced population of ABBs is a back up population. If a hurricane wipes out the Block Island population, the genetics of the east coast ABBs will still be preserved.

If you want to learn more about this project, please drop by the Science Museum or contact Andrew at amckennafoster@mariamitchell.org.

Most of the Nantucket conservation organizations assist in this project. It would not be possible without them!

Nantucket Conservation Foundation
Massachusetts Audubon Society
UMass Field Station
Nantucket Land Bank

Starting in 2007, crows learned how to steal the rotted chicken bait from our traps. In 2014, we finally caught them on camera!

 

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