Endangered Beetle Having Trouble Surviving on Nantucket

NEWS November 28, 2016

Contact: Lauren Berlin

508-228-9198 or lberlin@mariamitchell.orgABB measuring 6-14-16

Endangered Beetle Having Trouble Surviving on Nantucket

Nantucket, MA

The American burying beetle, the largest and most visually striking of America’s carrion beetles, was reintroduced to Nantucket Island in 1994 as a part of an effort to save this federally endangered species.  About the size of a wine cork with a black body and bright orange markings, the American burying beetle disappeared from most of the eastern United States in the last 100 years.  A recent paper published in the Journal of Insect Conservation (http://rdcu.be/mLij) by scientists at the Maria Mitchell Association and the Roger Williams Park Zoo suggest the Nantucket population cannot survive without continued human assistance.

“This species has to find and bury a dead bird or rodent about the size of a rat to successfully reproduce and few places in the U.S. have enough animals like that anymore,” says Andrew Mckenna-Foster, lead author of the paper and the former Director of Natural Science at the Maria Mitchell Association.  “These beetles are extremely efficient recyclers of dead animals.  The American burying beetles evolved to specialize on certain sized carrion, possibly the now-extinct passenger pigeon, and we think a loss of bird species and an increase in competition from animals like opossum have made life very difficult for them,” continues Mckenna-Foster.

The published paper outlines successful reintroduction methods for Nantucket and provides a recipe to re-establish the population.  The researchers provided carrion in the form of quail carcasses to the beetles and saw the population rise to a peak of 212 beetles in 2011.  After reducing the number of quail provided, they watched the population drop to only 24 beetles in 2016.  Changes to field methods and careful record keeping allowed them to make conclusions on why the population decreased.  This comprehensive knowledge about the Nantucket population opens up new avenues of research.  Ultimately, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for the Nantucket population and deliberations are underway to determine next steps. “The MMA is proud to be intimately involved with this important reintroduction of an endangered invertebrate. It is important to note that this is the longest running introductory effort of an endangered invertebrate in the US” states David Gagnon, Executive Director of the Maria Mitchell Association.

This work is important because it supports the hypothesis that a reduction in carrion is primarily responsible for the decline and this is probably true across the U.S.  Since the late 1800s, humans have drastically changed ecosystems around the world and one result has been a simple reduction of the number of animals out there.  “It’s easy to notice when a big species like the Carolina Parakeet goes extinct due to hunting.  But it’s also easy to overlook what happens to all the species that depended on that bird.  We’re starting to understand how species extinctions have sent reverberations through the ecosystem as a whole” says Mckenna-Foster.

Research on the American burying beetles on Nantucket will continue in 2017.  More information on this species and many other rare or common birds, plants, fish, and insects can be found at the Maria Mitchell Natural Science Museum or contact the association if you would like a digital copy of the publication.

The Maria Mitchell Association is named after America’s first female astronomer, Maria Mitchell.  She is known for discovering a comet over Nantucket in October 1847.  She went on to become the first professor at Vassar College. The Maria Mitchell Association was founded in 1902 to preserve her legacy of scientific achievement and to carry on her passion for hands-on learning. Today, the Maria Mitchell Association operates two observatories (Loines and the Maria Mitchell Observatory), as well as the MMA Aquarium, the Natural Science Museum, and the birthplace of Maria Mitchell.  More information about the Maria Mitchell Association can be found at www.mariamitchell.org.