Thanks to Eric LoPresti, Julia Blyth, and Andrew Mckenna-Foster for these pictures.
The American burying beetle (ABB) is a recycler in nature and reproduces by 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:
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 is reintroduced.
Since the first reintroduction in 1994 on Nantucket, the ABB population here has been through ups and downs. After 16 years of intensive work to increase the reintroduced population, six years of less intensive work resulted in a population decrease, indicating that the species is still dependent on human assistance for survival.
This project has gone through several phases:
- 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.
- 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.
- Reduce the quail hand-outs and see if the beetles can survive on their own.
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.
The third phase started in 2011, when 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 since 2011 suggests 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 are now extinct (due to human hunting).
Following the result of the previous phase, a second round of reintroductions began in 2018 with a goal to increase the population to a level that is easy to maintain and could potentially survive natural disasters. The Nantucket population is important because it provides a backup gene pool for the original population on Block Island.
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 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.
Why should we care about this beetle?
It is only one species after all! There are several very good reasons:
- 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!
- 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 populations))? If this beetles disappears, we will never, ever be able to get it back.
- 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 if we continue our cavalier attitudes about conservation.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most of the Nantucket conservation organizations assist in this project. It would not be possible without them!
Starting in 2007, crows learned how to steal the rotted chicken bait from our traps. In 2014, we finally caught them on camera!