Tuesday, January 24, 2012
the Wilds back in December - see previous post - I begged conservation science director Jenise Bauman to give me the nickel tour of their burying beetle restoration project. She obliged, and into that unassuming little building we went.
The Wilds does not confine their research and conservation efforts only to the charismatic mega-fauna featured in the previous post. American burying beetles are about as obscure and far from the average citizens' mind as it is possible to get in the animal world. To my mind, the Wilds deserves major kudos for working with an insect that is certainly not going to draw the accolades and attention that, say, their cheetah program does.
Why American burying beetles? Because they've become incredibly rare over their entire range, and at least until this project was initiated, had disappeared from the wild in Ohio. Historically, these inch-and-a-half bugs ranged throughout the eastern half of North America, living primarily in the imprint of our vast temperate deciduous forest. Today, small populations exist only in Rhode Island and a very limited area of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas.
Prior to European settlement, as many as five billion Passenger Pigeons dwelt in the primeval eastern forests. Wild Turkey abounded, and interwoven prairie regions contained an abundance of Greater Prairie-Chickens. These species all produced chicks that are/were of the perfect dimensions for burying beetle food. Mortality among the pigeon squabs, in particular, was probably high and dead chicks on the forest floor were probably a frequent occurrence. If the beetles' fortunes were tightly linked to that of the Passenger Pigeon, it may well be tough to successfully aid in a rebound of the beetle. A ray of hope lies with Wild Turkeys, which abetted by wildlife managers have increased dramatically. Perhaps doomed turkey poults will provide adequate sustenance to maintain American burying beetle populations.
Once the reproductive cycle is set in motion, things get interesting. American burying beetles possess Herculean strength, and it was amazing to see how the insects easily jostled the much larger corpse around. Eventually, the pair will at least partially bury their grisly fodder, and prepare it by stripping much of the feathers away from the carcass. The beetles then slather the body with bacteria and fungus retarding chemicals. By this point or soon after, Mrs. Beetle will deposit her eggs in a nearby brood chamber. Once the first instar grublets hatch, the doting parents gently transport them to the carrion. As the grubs are as yet unable to feed themselves, they stroke one of the parent's mandibles when hungry. Excellent providers that they are, the Mr. or Mrs. promptly regurgitates a snack of masticated dead meat.
The grubs grow through three instar stages, and then enter a month-long pupation after which they emerge as colorful adults ready to start this beetle magic all over again.
I hope the Wilds is successful in reestablishing American burying beetles in Ohio. Even though I'll probably never see one in the wild, I take great satisfaction in knowing that such creatures are on the landscape, and equal pleasure in the fact that people care enough to go to these lengths to try and ensure their survival.
Thanks to Jenise Bauman for touring me through the beetle house, and kudos to the Wilds and its affiliate the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and partners the Ohio Division of Wildlife, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Ohio State University for supporting this program.