The Great Undertakers
American burying beetles are the largest of the carrion beetles: up to one-and-a-half inches long. Largely nocturnal, the beetles are shiny black with bright orange-red bands on their wing-covers. They also have a bright orange-red patch just behind the head and a patch between the eyes.
The American burying beetle is named for its practice of burying its food -- carrion. When they bury the carcass of a quail or other small mammal, they can tunnel a foot deep, stripping fur or feathers from the body with pincers and expectorating an antibacterial secretion that slows decomposition by embalming the body. Because carrion can be scarce, these beetles sometimes cross large areas; by necessity, they are strong fliers capable of covering several miles overnight. The beetle uses special chemical receptors in its antennae to detect dead meat from almost two miles away. Once it finds the carrion, the beetle often has to fight other burying beetles for its right to eat it.
Pairs bury the carrion cooperatively. The female beetle lays her eggs near the preserved carcass. Within four days, the eggs hatch into larvae. Both parents feed their offspring by eating some of the dead flesh and regurgitating it into the larvae's mouths. This goes on for about six to 12 days, until the larvae begin their next stage of development, pupation.
After 45 to 60 days, the new generation of beetles emerges from the carcass cavity. This process is repeated during the beetles' one-year life span.
"In recycling decomposing components back into the environment, this beetle is a necessary part of our ecosystem," says Ed Spevak, Saint Louis Zoo curator of Invertebrates.
"Clearly, its rapid decline is cause for alarm. Insects, like this, are often the proverbial 'canary in the coal mine,' providi
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Saint Louis Zoo