ST. LOUIS — A colorful beetle last seen in Missouri in the 1970s is about to make a comeback.
The St. Louis Zoo, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and conservationists announced plans Tuesday to reintroduce about 600 American burying beetles in southwest Missouri. The reintroduction is set for the first week of June in the 4,000-acre Wah'Kon-tah Prairie near El Dorado Springs, in St. Clair and Cedar counties.
"We don't want this animal disappearing," said Scott Hamilton, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service. "Today's announcement makes us think we're on the right path."
The beetle is up to an inch-and-a-half long and sports a shiny black body and orange-red markings. Not that most people ever see it — the insects are nocturnal and spend most of their life underground.
Hamilton called them "one of nature's recyclers," which is a nice way of saying they live off of dead animals such as quail and small mammals.
Using strong flying skills and a keen sense of smell that can track a carcass from two miles away, the insects work in male/female pairs to tunnel up to a foot deep (hence the "burying" part of the name). They remove fur or feathers from the body with pincers and emit an anti-bacterial secretion that slows decomposition, in essence embalming the body.
The female beetle lays her eggs near the preserved carcass. Both parents feed their offspring by eating dead flesh and regurgitating it into the larvae's mouths.
"In recycling decomposing components back into the environment, this beetle is a necessary part of our ecosystem," said Ed Spevak, Saint Louis Zoo curator of invertebrates.
The beetle was once found in 35 U.S. states and southern Canada. By 1989, only one population was known, in Rhode Island, though additional populations were later found in six Midwestern states (but not Missouri).
Experts don't know what precipitated the beetle's decline, but scientists speculate it might have been due to pesticides, habitat loss and destruction and even competition by other scavengers of dead animals.
In 1989, it became the first insect designated as a federally endangered species.
The St. Louis Zoo developed a Center for American Burying Beetle Conservation and has bred 7,000 beetles since 2005.
In June, zoo staff will release beetles in pairs. Notches on the wings will distinguish captive-bred and wild beetles.
The process involves digging holes at specially selected sites within the prairie, which is managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Nature Conservancy. Officials will place the carcass of a quail and a pair of beetles in each cavity and replace the plugs, providing a natural underground setting for the beetles' life cycle, zoo officials said.
The plug sites will then be monitored for signs of breeding activity by checking for larvae, and later, new adult beetles.
The Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to a special "nonessential experimental population" designation, which means adjacent landowners will be under no special restrictions if they encounter the beetles.
Missouri becomes the third state with a reintroduction program for the American burying beetle. They were reintroduced at Penikese Island, Mass., in 1990, and at Nantucket Island, Mass., in 1994. Ohio has been involved in an ongoing reintroduction effort since 1998.
The Wah'Kon-tah Prairie is part of the small amount left of the prairies that once covered about one-quarter of Missouri. It has been the site of another reintroduction program involving prairie chickens imported from Kansas.