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Endangered beetle awaits reintroduction in southwest Missouri

Thursday, February 9, 2012 | 1:17 p.m. CST; updated 10:52 a.m. CST, Monday, February 13, 2012

COLUMBIA — It mates for life, raises its young as a couple, can detect a dead animal two miles away within an hour of death and bury it up to a foot below the ground.

The American burying beetle is unusual among insects, and also one of the rarest  animals in the country.

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Saint Louis Zoo are preparing to reintroduce the critically endangered beetle to its previous habitat in southwest Missouri this spring.

The beetle is at a high risk of becoming extinct, and has not been found in the wild in Missouri since the mid-1970s.

The proposed reintroduction, awaiting final approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, would release about 200 beetles in May at Wah'Kon-Tah Prairie, owned by the Nature Conservancy near El Dorado Springs.

It would join a relatively short list of other endangered species to be reintroduced in Missouri, including the bald eagle and peregrine falcon.

The beetle, which is about an inch and a half long with orange spots, gets its name for its distinctive mating habit of burying dead animal matter to lay its eggs. Burying beetles can fly more than two miles by scent alone to find a small dead animal such as a mouse or pigeon.

Additionally, they can detect a dead animal within an hour of death, and the two beetles can carry it away from its place of death to softer soil. Exactly how they do this remains a mystery to biologists.

The beetles also work as a male and female pair in everything they do. This, by itself, makes it unique among insects, which typically separate after mating.

The couple excavates the soil underneath the animal, sometimes chewing through small roots, and throws the soil over the remains. This buries the animal — sometimes up to a foot deep — which keeps the smell from attracting other scavengers like possums and raccoons.

The beetles embalm the animal, mummifying it with secretions so it can be used as a food source, then lay their eggs next to it. When they hatch, the male and female work together to care for the larvae, even regurgitating food into their mouths like a bird.

After a month, the larvae emerge from the ground as fully formed burying beetles to start the process again, and live for about a year.

As a side effect, the beetles play a vital role in the decomposition of dead animals.

Bob Merz, director of the Center for American Burying Beetle Conservation at the Saint Louis Zoo, said the beetle has no negative effects on agriculture, as it only eats dead animals in both its larval and adult form.

In fact, the beetle's habit of burying carrion helps reduce fly populations, he said.

"The residents of El Dorado Springs will not even know the beetle is there," Merz said.

The Saint Louis Zoo has been breeding a colony of the endangered beetles since 2005 and has more than 350, Merz said.

The zoo has also been involved in other burying beetle reintroduction efforts in southeast Ohio, starting in 2005.

Since 2002, the zoo has led efforts to conduct surveys for the beetle throughout southwest Missouri, where it was last found in the 1970s.

After thousands of failed attempts to find the beetle, biologists have determined that it is "most likely not there," Merz said.

This has led to the current proposed reintroduction effort that also includes the Nature Conservancy and the Missouri Department of Conservation.

The population that could be released this spring is known as a "non-essential experimental population," said Scott Hamilton, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based in Columbia.

This means that if this population fails, the species as a whole will still survive.

Because of this, the reintroduced beetles will not be covered by the normal restrictions of the Endangered Species Act, so people don't need to worry about penalties for accidentally harming them, Hamilton said.

"You don't have to worry if it hits your car," he said.

The American burying beetle population has been declining nationwide since around the 1940s, and only exists in "small pockets" in the Midwest, compared to its previous habitat throughout 35 states west of the Rocky Mountains said Kris Simpson, Curator of MU's Enns Entomology Museum.

There are several theories for the cause of the decline, Simpson said.

These include habitat fragmentation, or a reduction in size and amount of habitat due to agriculture and road building. These habitat changes lead to an increase in the number of other scavengers like possums and raccoons, which are in direct competition with the beetle for food, Simpson said.

Other theories include the extinction of the passenger pigeon, which was exactly the right size for the beetle to bury, as well as light pollution, which seems to confuse the nocturnal beetles, Merz said.

As for why people should care, Merz said that when something in the environment starts disappearing, people should take notice.

"I've lived in Missouri my whole life," he said. "And when something that used to be found in the wild within my lifetime is not there anymore, there's something wrong."


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