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The American Burying Beetle: Information for Teachers and Students
Rhode Island's state insect is the American burying beetle, one of the most fascinating insects in the world. It was designated in 2015; Rhode Island is the only state to choose a member of this group as its state insect. This article tells you what you need to know about this fascinating insect.
Make sure you take the Quiz at the end of this article before you leave!
Did You Know? Burying Beetle Facts
Learn more about this these fascinating insects! Here are some highlights that you will read about in this lesson:
- Burying beetles locate small dead animals (carrion) using their antennae.
- These beetles dig underneath the dead animal until it falls into the hole; then they cover it to protect their offspring and aid in decomposition.
- Burying beetles lay eggs on the carrion; their larvae (grubs) feed on the decaying flesh.
- Some burying beetle females will eat some of their offspring. This is called "culling."
- Some burying beetle larvae and adults have been found to feed on the larvae of other carrion-feeding insects, like flies.
- Adult burying beetles are large and often colored red and black; they can fly and sometimes come to lights.
The American Burying Beetle's Scientific Name
The American burying beetle belongs to the family Silphidae, a group of insects that use carrion (dead animals) as a source of food. These beetles have some of the most unusual habits of any insect group in the world.
The American burying beetle's scientific name is Nicophorus americanus. This means that the genus name is Nicophorus. There are many beetles in this genus. Americanus is the species name, which means only one specific kind of beetle has that name. Latin names are always in italics.
As a middle school teacher myself, I wrote this guide to be useful for both students and teachers. It's a great place to start for research ideas and science fair projects!
The Amazing Habits of Burying Beetles
The American burying beetle belongs to a group of beetles that share some truly unbelievable habits. The common name, "burying beetle," is an absolutely accurate description of their way of life.
Burying beetles have specialized antennae that can detect the scent of a dead animal from a long way away. They typically respond to small animals like birds or mice. When the beetles arrive at the corpse, there is a burying beetle battle royale to see who can claim it -- but it's by gender, with males fighting males and females fighting females, until the biggest and strongest one of each sex remains. These two mate and begin to prepare the morbid cradle for their offspring.
First, they strip fur and feathers from the corpse and cover it with secretions that aid in decomposition. They also begin digging underneath the dead animal, until they have buried it beneath the surface. The female lays her eggs on the stripped, coated, and buried corpse.
But they are not finished. As the eggs hatch into maggot-like beetle larvae, the female attends to them and protects them. She may also feed predigested morsels of rotting flesh to them, but this depends on whether they "beg," a highly unusual behavior among insects.
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And it gets even more unusual -- in some cases, the female will "cull" her offspring, a nice way of saying she will eat the weakest ones so the bigger one will get even stronger. Once the larvae are full grown, they pupate and hatch out as adult beetles, ready to repeat the cycle.
This life history is brought to you by entomologists, scientists who get down on their hands and knees and make careful observations of insects and the lives they live.
The American burying beetle is about an inch and a half long, with a body that is solid and torpedo-shaped. The ground color is shiny-black, and some similar species are all black, which makes their name even more appropriate. The American burying beetle has four irregular orange spots on its wing covers (elytra), which are well-known among naturalists as warning colors, or "aposematic coloration." This species also has a similar patch of color on its thorax, behind the head. There are many similar burying beetle species that resemble the American burying beetle, but they can be told by that bright orange-red patch on the thorax, or middle segment.
The American burying beetle also has orange facial markings and orange tips on the antennae. They fly at night as they seek out dead animals; some species also come to lights.
A Critically Endangered Species
Like several other insect species, these beetles are nearing extinction. The American burying beetle, the largest of the North American carrion beetles, has so drastically declined in numbers and range that, in July 1989, it was added to the federal Endangered Species List.
According to the USFSW Fact Sheet:
"Historical records show that this beetle once lived in 35 states, the District of Columbia, and three Canadian provinces. Now, natural populations are known to occur in only four states: Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Nebraska. Biologists are not sure what led to the disappearance of this insect from so many areas and are attempting to determine the reasons for its decline. As part of this ongoing research, and in an attempt to establish another beetle population, biologists have released laboratory-raised American burying beetles on Penikese Island in Massachusetts, historical habitat of the animal.
Historical records offer little insight into what type of habitat was preferred by the American burying beetle. Current information suggests that this species is a habitat generalist, or one that lives in many types of habitat, with a slight preference for grasslands and open understory oak hickory forests. However, the beetles are carrion specialists in that they need carrion the size of a dove or a chipmunk in order to reproduce. Carrion availability may be the greatest factor determining where the species can survive."
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Why Is the American Burying Beetle Endangered?
Some insects become rare or endangered because of pressure from invasive species, which can upset the balance of nature and drive a species to the brink of extinction. In other cases, a species finds its habitat – the space and food sources that they need to reproduce and stay viable – destroyed by human development or, as is suspected in some cases, climate change. Pesticides can also wreak havoc down the line from the fields where they are deployed; the monarch butterfly, for example, has become much less common due to pesticide run-off that kills milkweed plants, the butterfly's foodplant.
In the case of Rhode Island's state insect, biologists are not exactly sure what has happened to drive it to the brink of extinction. One theory is the declining number of birds, which means fewer corpses to find for their life-cycle. Whatever the cause, this incredible little animal needs all of the help it can get to avoid oblivion.
Go Natural, and Help Animals Like the Burying Beetle
Avoiding pesticides, reducing your carbon footprint, and supporting Green initiatives are some of the things we can all do to help endangered insects and animals like the American burying beetle.
Students, Can You Pass This Quiz?
For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.
- Is the American burying beetle a common species?
- Yes, it is common
- No, it is very rare
- Are there many kinds of burying beetles?
- Yes, there are many kinds
- No, there is only this one
- Why might a female burying beetle "cull" her off-spring?
- To eliminate weaker offspring
- To provide others with less competition
- To provide herself with a meal
- All of the above
- Do burying beetles actually bury small dead animals?
- No one knows
- What do you call a scientist who studies insects?
- An epidemiologist
- A phrenologist
- An entomologist
- None of these
- No, it is very rare
- Yes, there are many kinds
- All of the above
- An entomologist
The following sources were used for this guide:
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.