American Burying Beetle

Nicrophorus americanus
Silphidae (carrion beetles) in the order Coleoptera (beetles)

A bright, shiny beetle with a distinctive orange-and-black pattern on its wing covers. To tell this species from other members of its genus, look for a reddish-orange mark on the shieldlike plate (pronotum) just behind the head. There are orange marks on the face and antennae tips, as well. Like other burying beetles, the wing covers are wider in back than toward the front, and they aren't long enough to cover the tip of the abdomen. In flight, they seem like bumblebees.

Similar species: Because reintroduction efforts are under way, you may hopefully start to see this species in the wild. Meanwhile, other burying beetles, such as the tomentose burying beetle (Nicrophorus tomentosus), are much more likely to be seen. There are about 15 species in the genus Nicrophorus in North America.

Length: to 1¼ inches.
Habitat and conservation: 
This species once lived in 35 states but declined as habitat changed and natural communities were disturbed. By 1923 they were dwindling, and when they were placed on the Federal Endangered Species List in 1989, they had disappeared from all but four states. Today the species remains in only a handful of states and is currently gone from Missouri. Scientists have been raising American burying beetles in captivity and are having some success in reintroducing them in the wild.
These beetles eat dead animals—mice, birds, or other creatures. Using organs located on the tips of their antennae, the beetles can smell dead animal carcasses from far away. They fly to the carrion, crawl beneath it, then dig the soil out from under it. The dead animal eventually is buried as soil piles up around it. After further preparation of the corpse, the adults lay eggs nearby. The adults remain, guarding their young, and feed them regurgitated carrion.
Distribution in Missouri: 
Formerly statewide. Now only in limited areas, as reintroduced populations.
A State and Federal Endangered Species. In 2012, about 300 pairs of zoo-bred beetles were released at Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie in Cedar and St. Clair counties. Nationwide, the population decline seems to have been caused by a number of factors, including pesticide use and a dramatic lessening of the kinds of carrion this species prefers. Some researchers suggest that the now-extinct passenger pigeon, which once appeared in staggering numbers, might have been a major food source.
Life cycle: 
Adults typically emerge late in the summer and feed until fall, when they bury themselves in the soil to overwinter. In Missouri, they reemerge in May and begin mating. The male and female both assist in burying the carcass of a mouse or other small animal. The female then lays 10–30 eggs near the carcass. Assisted by both parents, the larvae feed on the carcass until they mature, then emerge as adults to feed on other carcasses until winter. This species is nocturnal.
Human connections: 
This beetle is of great interest to science. It is one of the few beetles in which both parents care attentively for the young. It is also useful to study its response to changing ecosystems. Also, by competing with fly maggots for food, they can help reduce populations of annoying flies.
Ecosystem connections: 
These little scavengers perform a valuable if not glorious service to the natural community by burying dead animals and then consuming them. They help return nutrients to the soil and, by lessening possible contact with decaying animal tissues, reduce disease among the living.
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