UPDATE: Endangered beetle may return to Missouri prairie

Friday, July 22, 2011 | 6:40 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — The endangered American burying beetle could be on its way back to southwestern Missouri.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to work with Saint Louis Zoo to reintroduce the beetles to Wah-kon-tah Prairie in St. Clair and Cedar counties. The zoo, which has captive American burying beetles, said Friday that the colorful insects have not been seen in Missouri in more than two decades.

Under the Missouri reintroduction plan, the beetles would be designated as a "nonessential experimental" population near the prairie. The agency said nearby landowners and others would not need to change anything they are doing. The Fish and Wildlife Service plans to hold a public meeting Aug. 11 in El Dorado Springs to answer questions.

The American burying beetle is about an inch long and has a shiny black body and orange-red markings. It relies on dead animals for food and for rearing young. The beetles bury a bird or animal carcass and then embalm it using oral and anal secretions to preserve it. The beetles mate and lay eggs. When the eggs hatch, the male and female beetles care for the grubs and feed them by regurgitating parts of the carcass into the larvae's mouth.

The ideal-sized carcass for the beetles is about the size of a quail. The beetles' average brood is 12 to 15 young but can be as large as 30.

In 1989, the American burying beetle became the first insect designated as a federally endangered species. Scientists said the beetle once was found in 35 states and part of southern Canada but now have been reduced to just several states. It is unclear exactly why the population has decreased.

Bob Merz, the director of the Center for American Burying Beetle Conservation at the Saint Louis Zoo, said American burying beetles also have been reintroduced to Nantucket, Mass., and to part of southeastern Ohio. He said the beetles do not threaten people, crops or livestock. They are nocturnal and spend much of their life underground.

"It's a beetle that you pretty much only find if you are looking for it," Merz said.

The beetles can fly, and their defense is a bad-smelling spray that has the odor of dead animals but is not harmful.

By eating carrion, the beetles help return nutrients to the soil and could be an indicator of the health of the surrounding ecosystem. Merz said the beetles also carry mites that eat fly eggs and hatchlings.

The Wah-kon-tah Prairie in southwestern Missouri has more than 3,000 acres and is several miles northeast of El Dorado Springs. The area is a remainder of the prairies that covered about one-quarter of Missouri, and managers use burning, grazing and other tools to keep grasslands and keep out invasive plants and trees. Among the animals that live there are greater prairie-chickens, bobwhite quail, the crawfish frog and the slender glass lizard.

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