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Overview

Brief Summary

Biology

Burying beetles receive their common name from their specialised mechanism of parental care that involves providing the growing larvae with carrion upon which to feed. At night, beetle pairs will locate a suitable carcass and then cooperate to bury it in the soil, thus protecting their find from competition with other species (2). Once the carcass is beneath the soil, the beetles strip away the fur or feathers and produce a compact ball; the female then lays her eggs in a chamber created above the carcass (2). Unusually for insects, the parents both remain to provide for the larvae after they have hatched, regurgitating food for the growing grubs until they are able to feed for themselves (2). Roughly a week later, the larvae pupate in the soil nearby, having consumed the entire food supply; they will emerge as adults around a month later and overwinter in this stage (2). American burying beetles only live for one season and adults die soon after they have ceased to provide for their young (2).
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Description

The American burying beetle is the largest carrion beetle in North America (2). It has extremely distinctive colouration, being shiny black with bright orange markings; there are four orange bands on the wing cases (known as 'elytra'), but unusually the pronotum and face also have orange markings (2).
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Additional Resources

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Margaret Thayer

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Succinct

Large (20-40 mm) endangered burying beetle occurring in eastern North America.
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Introduction

The American burying beetle, or ABB, is a very large and spectacularly colored burying beetle species once found in nearly all eastern states of the USA and two adjoining provinces of Canada. Listed as critically endangered, it now occupies only about 10% of its former range and probably much less than 1% of its originally occupied habitat. ABB seem to be habitat generalists, occurring in both forested and grassland areas, but require soils suitable for digging. Like other burying beetles, pairs of adults bury carcasses of small animals (preferably 50-200 g body mass for this species), mate nearby, and use the carrion to feed their larvae in a subterranean chamber. Adults also feed on carrion of any size. The reasons for the species' dramatic decline are not entirely certain, but evidence points increasingly to a cascade of changes in vertebrate communities resulting from habitat fragmentation and other human-caused disturbances. Loss of the largest mammal predators has resulted in increases of smaller mammal predator-scavengers that are more likely to compete with ABB for carcasses of still smaller mammals or birds.


References

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Comprehensive Description

Original Description

Olivier described the species from "Amérique septentrionale" (=North America), with no specific type locality. As cited by Sikes et al. (2002), a label on the holotype specimen also says “New Jersey,” but that label appears to have been added later when the Bosc d’Antic collection was received (1828) by the Museum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris, where it remains today.

Holotype photos from Nicrophorus Central
Lateral view
Dorsal view
Labels


Olivier, A. G. [Guillaume-Antoine] 1790. Entomologie, ou histoire naturelle des insectes, avec leurs caracteres génériques et spécifiques, leur description, leur synonymie, et leur figure enluminée. Coléoptères, Vol. 2, Nos. 9-34. Baudouin, Paris. 485 pp. Original description is number 10, p. 6, plus Plate 1, Figure 3.

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Distribution

American burying beetles, Nicrophorus americanus, at one time may have ranged throughout the United States and Canada. Many populations in Canada, however, are now extinct, and their range is now largely confined to Alaska and the east and west coasts of the United States. They are currently found in only 6 states in United States and are being reintroduced in some areas.

Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native )

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National Distribution

Canada

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Unknown/Undetermined

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Year-round

United States

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Year-round

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Global Range: (<100-250 square km (less than about 40-100 square miles)) Historically widespread in Eastern US and Ontario and Nova Scotia, Canada. Surveys in at least eight states included in its historic range have failed to discover remnamt populations. Currently known to be extant only on Block Island in Rhode Island, in eastern Oklahoma, Nebraska, South Dakota and probably Arkansas. Confirmed in Texas in 2004. Last records in intervening region varied from late 1800s to a few 1970s. Reintroduced to Penikese and Nantucket Islands in Massachusetts.

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Historic Range:

U.S.A. (eastern States south to FL, west to SD and TX), eastern Canada

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Range

Historically found throughout the eastern United States and into southern Canada (2), this burying beetle is today restricted to populations in a handful of central States (3).
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Current & Historical Distribution Maps

After originally occurring throughout the eastern United States and parts of adjacent Canada, Nicrophorus americanus nearly disappeared in the mid- to late 20th century, as first noted by Davis (1980) and discussed further by Anderson (1982), Peck and Anderson (1985), and Peck and Kaulbars (1987). The last of these papers mapped historical records, as no extant populations were then known. Since then, largely through numerous state-by-state surveys, remnant populations of the species have turned up in Rhode Island (Block Island only; 1986), Oklahoma (1982), Nebraska (1992), Arkansas (1992), South Dakota (1995), Kansas (1996), and Texas (2003).

US Current (2004) & Historical Distribution Map

http://www.fws.gov/southwest/es/Oklahoma/Maps/ABB%20Maps/Images/ABB%20US%208-5-2004b.jpg


Current (2004)Distribution in Central US

http://www.fws.gov/southwest/es/Oklahoma/Maps/ABB%20Maps/Images/ABB%20West%208-5-2004.jpg


Current Distribution in Eastern US

http://www.fws.gov/southwest/es/Oklahoma/Pictures/ABBEast.jpg


Oklahoma Current (2005) & Historical Distribution Map

http://www.fws.gov/southwest/es/Oklahoma/Maps/ABB%20Maps/ABB%20OK%20range%20map%201-24-05.jpg

References

US Fish and Wildlife Service

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Originally widespread in the eastern USA (36 states) and Canada (2 provinces), now known to occur in only seven states naturally (Rhode Island, Arkansas, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas) and two others as reintroduced populations (Massachusetts and Ohio).
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Physical Description

Morphology

American burying beetles are the largest carrion-feeding insects in North America, growing up to 35 mm in length. Most carrion beetles of the genus Nicrophorus, including American burying beetles, have shiny black wings with distinctively marked bright orange bands on each wing cover. Unlike other species, however, American burying beetles also have a pronotum, a shield-like area just behind the head. They also have a small orange patch on their face between the eyes. In males this patch is square, while it is triangular in females

Range length: 30 to 35 mm.

Sexual Dimorphism: sexes colored or patterned differently

Other Physical Features: ectothermic ; bilateral symmetry

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Size

Physical Description

The American burying beetle is the largest carrion-frequenting insect in North America; it may reach a length of 40 mm (over 1 1/2 inches). Like other carrion beetles in the genus Nicrophorus, it is shiny black and distinctively marked with two bright orange bands on each wing cover (elytron). It also has orange centrally on the pronotum (the shield-like area just behind the head), in a small patch on the face between the eyes (larger in males than in females), and the last three enlarged segments of the antennae are orange. Adults from laboratory broods range in size (pronotal width) from 7.83 to 12.71 mm (0.3-0.5 in); wild-caught individuals captured on Block Island, Rhode Island, covered nearly this whole range, with pronotal widths of 7.98 to 12.63 mm.

Larvae (not yet formally described) are very similar in appearance to those of other Nicrophorus species: elongate with bulging body segments, the body slightly wider at the middle than at either end, white except for the brown head and irregularly shaped brown plates on the dorsal (upper) surface of each segment of the thorax and abdomen. Full-grown (third instar) larvae are up to 40-45 mm (1.5-1.75 in) long.

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Diagnostic Description

Large orange spot on pronotum distinguishes this species from all others in the genus.

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Ecology

Habitat

Specific habitat preference of American burying beetles is unknown. Like many endangered species, this species seems largely confined to areas with the least human influence. American burying beetles thrive in areas with an abundance of carrion and have been found in grasslands, scrublands and forest edges.

Habitat Regions: temperate ; terrestrial

Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland ; forest ; scrub forest

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Habitat and Ecology

Systems
  • Terrestrial
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Habitat Type: Terrestrial

Comments: Species exhibits broad vegetational tolerances, though natural habitat may be mature forests. Species is recorded from grassland, old field shrubland, and hardwood forests. Block Island population occurs on glacial moraine dominated by maritime scrub-shrub community. Plant species include bayberry (Myrica), shadbush (Amelanchier), goldenrod (Solidago), and various non-native plants. Vegetational communities in which N. AMERICANUS occurs range from large mowed and grazed fields to dense shrub thickets. Oklahoma habitats vary from deciduous oak-hickory and coniferous forests atop ridges or hillsides to deciduous riparian corridors and pasturelands on valley floors. Soil characteristics also important to the beetle's ability to bury carrion. Extremely xeric, saturated, or loose sandy soils are unsuitable for these activities. Historic collections were made when forests had been cleared and the land was largely agricultural. Habitats associated with these collections were not clearly described. Adults live primarily above ground. Eggs are laid in soil adjacent to buried carcass. Teneral adults overwinter in soil (Raithel, 1991; Creighton, et al, 1992).

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The specific habitat requirements of this species are not fully understood and it appears that the availability of carrion may be the limiting factor. In Nebraska, beetles have been observed in grassland prairie, scrubland and forest edges (2).
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Very little habitat information is available for the species before its dramatic decrease in population size and distributional range.  In a study done in four habitats in Tennessee, Walker (1957) found Nicrophorus americanus only in woodland with relatively open undergrowth. Based on recent studies, American burying beetles appear to occupy a range of habitats, occurring in both grasslands and deciduous forests, usually with relatively little low vegetation.  Studies in Oklahoma and Arkansas (Creighton & Schnell 1998, Creighton et al. 1993) found that individual beetles searching for carrion may travel from 0.25 km (1/6 mi) in one night to 10 km (6.2 mi) in six nights and often move between forest and grassland habitats.  Riparian (river-edge) woodlands appear to have been important habitat in Nebraska.


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Migration

Non-Migrant: No. All populations of this species make significant seasonal migrations.

Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).

Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.

N. AMERICANUS is a strong flier, travelling moderate distances. Probably capable of flying from mainland to Block Island (approx. 8 miles), but there is no evidence confirming this. It is suspected that beetles are capable of moving all over Block Island (6400 acres) (Kozol, pers. comm.).

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Trophic Strategy

American burying beetles are scavengers. Adults hunt for decaying carcasses, which are either used as a source of food or are buried for future use by larvae.

Animal Foods: carrion

Primary Diet: carnivore (Scavenger )

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Comments: Adults bury vertebrate carcasses, upon which larvae feed, between 80 and 100 grams of weight. Are capable of burying carrion weighing up to 206 grams (Kozol, 1990; Kozol et al, 1988). Block Island populations utilizing abundant carrion resources of Ring-necked Pheasant chicks and American Woodcock. Oklahoma beetles feeding on small mammals such as Hispid Cotton Rat (Kozol, pers. comm.). Elsewhere in historic range, beetles were known to consume fish used as fertilizer in fields. Food resources dependent upon carrion availability in particular area. Carrion is shaved, rolled into a ball, and treated with secretions by adults. It may be moved laterally several feet to suitable substrate. Adults feed regurgitated carrion to larvae until they are capable of feeding directly from the carcass. Adults classified as opportunistic scavengers, feeding on anything dead, but also catch and kill other insects (Raithel, 1991).

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Associations

As scavengers, American burying beetles play an important role in recycling decaying materials.

American burying beetles have a symbiotic relationship with mites Poecilochirus. A beetle provides mites with access to food and means of dispersal, and the mites clean the beetle of microbes and fly eggs that are carried up from carrions.

Ecosystem Impact: biodegradation

Mutualist Species:

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There are no known predators of American burying beetles.

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Population Biology

Number of Occurrences

Note: For many non-migratory species, occurrences are roughly equivalent to populations.

Estimated Number of Occurrences: 6 - 20

Comments: One remnant occurrence on Block Island off Rhode Island, recent confirmation from scattered sites in Oklahoma and Nebraska, at least one population believed extant in Arkansas, still extant in South Dakota but its range reduced to "about 1000 square miles in the south central part" (Doug Backlund, pers. comm. to Larry Master, August, 2000). Reintroduced on two islands off Massachusetts. In 2004, confirmed at two locations in NE Texas.

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Global Abundance

1000 - 2500 individuals

Comments: About 1,000 or fewer adults surviving through winter to breed next year. Nebraska/South Dakota population at low densities.

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General Ecology

Burying beetles are thought to be an important component of the decomposing loop of ecosystems. Predators and scavengers such as American crow, raccoon, fox, oppossum and skunk compete with N. AMERICANUS for carrion. Competition for carrion within the genus NICROPHORUS and within the species N. AMERICANUS is documented (Kozol, 1989). There are no known incidences of mammalian or bird predation on the beetles (Kozol, pers. comm.). Major parasites are nematodes. Co-occurring mites have been observed on beetles. The significance of the relationship between mites and carrion beetles is not clear, but it is believed to be mutually beneficial: the beetle provides the mites mobility and access to food, and the mites help keep the beetle and carcass clean by consuming microbes and fly eggs (Raithel, 1991).

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Ecosystem Role

Adults and larvae feed on animal carcasses, the larvae underground in chambers created by their parents. American burying beetles, with other members of the family Silphidae (carrion beetles) are important recyclers in the ecosystems where they occur. They consume, and thus dispose of, a significant amount of carrion, thus returning the nutrients stored in the carcasses to the forest or grassland nutrient cycle.
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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

Adult American burying beetles can detect dead or decaying flesh up to 3.2 km away using chemical receptors on their antennae. Both males and females are attracted to carcasses, and there is often competition between members of each sex at a carcass until a single pair remains. When necessary, males use pheromones to attract females to a carcass. Males and females cooperatively move and bury a carcass, though how they communicate to do so is unknown.

Communication Channels: chemical

Other Communication Modes: pheromones

Perception Channels: visual ; chemical

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Cyclicity

Comments: Populations active from April through September. Adults are nocturnal, and require air temperatures of 60 degrees F. for activity. Eggs laid between April and September, but most commonly June and July. Larvae require 48-60 days to develop. They feed continuously throughout the 24 hour day, emerging as teneral adults in July and August. Newly emerged adults are dormant throughout the winter, reproducing the following spring. Post-breeding adults die during the summer or following winter (Kozol, pers. comm.; Raithel, 1991).

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Life Cycle

American burying beetles lay their eggs on a carcass of an animal 50 to 200 g in size, and eggs hatch within a few days of being laid. Parents regurgitate food for the larvae until they are able to feed themselves. After larvae feed on the carcass for about a week, parents leave and larvae pupate in the nearby soil. After another month, they emerge as adult beetles.

Development - Life Cycle: metamorphosis

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Life Expectancy

American burying beetles typical live 1 year. Newly emerged adults remain in the soil during the winter season and mate in the summer. Adults die after raising their offspring.

Average lifespan

Status: wild:
1 years.

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Reproduction

Male and female American burying beetles have highly sensitive organs on their antennas that can detect the smell of decaying flesh up to 3.2 km away. They meet at a carcass of of suitable size, generally 50 to 200 g. If a male arrives at a carcass first, he waits for a female. If no female arrives after a period of time, the male sits on top of the carcass in a particular posture and broadcasts pheromones to attract a female. Once a male and female are present at a carcass, they cooperate to move it to suitable substrate and bury it under several inches of soil, chewing through roots as necessary. Once buried, hair or feathers are removed from the carcass, and the two beetles mate. The female creates a chamber above the carcass, in which she lays approximately 30 eggs.

Mating System: monogamous

American burying beetles require a vertebrate carcass of sufficient size in order to successfully breed (between 50 and 200 g). Females breed once a year in June or July and lay their eggs in a chamber above the carcass. If the carcass is too small, it cannot provide sufficient food for all the larvae, and parents may eat some of their young. Larvae pupate and emerge as adults 48 to 68 days after hatching. New adults spend winter in the soil and breed the following summer.

Breeding interval: American burying beetles breed once yearly.

Breeding season: American burying beetles breed in June or July.

Range eggs per season: 30 (high) .

Average eggs per season: 23.

Range time to independence: 48 (high) days.

Average time to independence: 68 days.

Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 48 to 68 days.

Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 48 to 68 days.

Key Reproductive Features: semelparous ; seasonal breeding ; sexual ; fertilization (Internal ); oviparous

American burying beetles provide care for their young from the time of birth until adolescence. This type of behavior is typically not observed among invertebrates outside of social bees, wasps, and termites.

Prior to birth, both parents regurgitate partially digested food in the nesting chamber, which accumulates as food for the larvae. They continue to do so until larvae are able to feed directly from the carcass. Parents also regularly maintain the carcass by removing fungi and covering the carrion ball with antibacterial secretions.

Parental Investment: male parental care ; female parental care ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female)

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Reproduction occurs from late April through mid August. Block Island populations are reproductively active in June and July, but Oklahoma beetles breed as early as April, or as late as August. Reproductive activity includes the burial of a carcass, building of a chamber, and laying eggs. Number of eggs produced is not known, but anywhere from 1 to 36 larvae have been observed on carcass (Kozol, pers. comm.). One or both parents feed, tend, and guard larvae throughout this stage (48-60 days). N. AMERICANUS is univoltine, generally raising only one brood per year. In Oklahoma, teneral adults may be reproductively active and, in such cases, it is possible that 2 broods are raised during the year (Raithel, 1991). It is doubtful that adults remain reproductively viable for more than one season, they apparently dye off after reproduction or during the subsequent winter (Raithel, 1991).

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Reproduction and Life History

Adults are nocturnal, and are usually active only when night-time temperatures are 15°C (60°F) or higher. The activity period of Nicrophorus americanus over its entire range is usually late April through September, although some historical collections were made as early as February and as late as October, these usually being in the southern parts of the range. On Block Island, Rhode Island, adult activity was mainly June-early August, with most reproductive activity in June and July. Preliminary evidence suggests that in Oklahoma N. americanus may breed as early as late April or as late as mid-August.

According to Kozol et al. (1989), reproductive behavior is similar to that for other Nicrophorus species (see references below).  If multiple individuals find fresh carcasses, there is intrasexual competition within each sex until usually only one male and one female remain.  Such a pair may cooperate to bury the carrion in the soil, or a male or a female may bury a carcass alone and attract a mate afterward. The parents prepare the carcass for their offspring as do other Nicrophorus species: they shave it, roll it into a ball, and treat it with anal and oral secretions to control decay. The female lays eggs in the soil near the carcass and within a few days lightly sclerotized larvae hatch. Staying in the underground chamber, one or both parents feed the larvae regurgitated food until they have grown large enough to feed on the carcass themselves. Usually at least one parent remains until larval development is done.  During a period of about two weeks after carcass burial, the larvae molt (shed their cuticle, or exoskeleton) twice to grow and complete their larval development, then in the soil nearby molt a final time into pupae. Data from laboratory broods indicate that adults eclose (emerge from their pupal cuticle) 48 to 65 days after carcass burial. Females are reproductively capable immediately upon leaving a brood, although it appears that in general there is only one brood per year.  In a field study (Block Island, Rhode Island), adults showed no significant preference between bird and mammal carcasses for reproduction, although they preferred carcasses of 50-200 grams (especially 80-100 g). Adults will feed, however, on carrion of any size and may also catch and eat live insects.


References

  • Kozol, A. J., M. P. Scott & J. F. A. Traniello. 1989 [1988]. The American Burying Beetle, Nicrophorus americanus: studies on the natural history of a declining species. Psyche 95: 167-176.
  • Pukowski, E. 1933. Ökologische untersuchungen an Necrophorus F. Z. Morph. Oekol. 27: 5 18-586.
  • Scott, M. P. & J. F. A. Traniello. 1987. Behavioral cues trigger ovarian development in the burying beetle Nicrophorus tomentosus. J. Insect Physiol. 33: 693-696.
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1991. American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) recovery plan. [by C. Raithel] Newton Corner, Massachusetts. 80 pp.
  • Wilson, D. S. &  J. Fudge. 1984, Burying beetles: intraspecific interactions and reproductive success in the field. Ecol. Ent. 9: 195-203.
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Evolution and Systematics

Systematics or Phylogenetics

Classification

Fabricius first recognized and named the genus Nicrophorus in 1775, separating a very distinct group of species from the genus Silpha in which they had been described. Olivier (1790) described N. americanus in the genus Nicrophorus, and it has always remained there. Semenov-Tian-Shanskij (1933) designated Nicrophorus americanus as the type species of a new subgenus, Eunecrophorus, but his subgeneric names are not currently in use. See the catalog of Sikes et al. (2002) for an extensive list of references pertaining to the species.

References

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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Statistics of barcoding coverage: Nicrophorus americanus

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 0
Specimens with Barcodes: 1
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation

In 1983 the American burying beetle was included as an endangered species in the Invertebrate Red Book published by the Intemational Union for the Conservation of Nature. In the United States, it was proposed as an endangered species in 1988 and was placed on the state and federal endangered species lists in August 1989 (Ratcliffe, URL (4)).

Since then, the species has been discovered to occur in Rhode Island (Block Island only), Oklahoma, Nebraska, Arkansas, South Dakota, Kansas, and Texas, although it is not clear whether all of these populations are adequately large and protected to be stable. In addition, captive breeding and reintroduction efforts are underway, at the St. Louis Zoo (St. Louis, Missouri; providing beetles for release in Ohio) and the Roger Williams Park Zoo (Providence, Rhode Island; providing beetles for release in Massachusetts). The St. Louis Zoo is also continuing to search for remnant populations in Missouri. Efforts are being made to protect the habitats of as many as possible of the known populations.


References

  1. US Fish & Wildlife Service Species Profile
  2. American Burying Beetle Recovery Plan
  3. Habitat Conservation Plan
  4. Endangered American Burying Beetle Update
  5. Lomolino, M. V. & J. C. Creighton. 1996. Habitat selection, breeding success and conservation of the endangered American Burying Beetle Nicrophorus americanus. Biological Conservation 77: 235-241.
  6. Lomolino, M. V., J. C. Creighton, G. D. Schnell & D. L. Certain. 1995. Ecology and conservation of the endangered American Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus americanus). Conservation Biology 9 (3): 605-614.
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Conservation Status

American burying beetles were listed as an endangered species by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1989. They are currently considered critically endangered by the IUCN and are likely extirpated from Michigan. Habitat fragmentation and habitat loss are largely held responsible for the decline of this species. Habitat fragmentation and deforestation has reduced populations of species that become carrion in which this species broods. Increased competition with other scavengers has also contributed to the population decline of American burying beetles.

US Federal List: endangered

CITES: no special status

State of Michigan List: probably extirpated

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: critically endangered

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IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
CR
Critically Endangered

Red List Criteria
A1c

Version
2.3

Year Assessed
1996
  • Needs updating

Assessor/s
World Conservation Monitoring Centre

Reviewer/s

Contributor/s

History
  • 1994
    Endangered
    (Groombridge 1994)
  • 1990
    Endangered
    (IUCN 1990)
  • 1988
    Endangered
    (IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1988)
  • 1986
    Endangered
    (IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1986)
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National NatureServe Conservation Status

Canada

Rounded National Status Rank: NH - Possibly Extirpated

United States

Rounded National Status Rank: N2 - Imperiled

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NatureServe Conservation Status

Rounded Global Status Rank: G2 - Imperiled

Reasons: Species has exhibited dramatic range collapse in recent times, having been reduced to less than 10% of its original range and probably much less than 1% of its original occupied habitat. There are certainly more than five and probably fewer than 20 extant populations (or metapopulations), some at relatively low densities and tenuous. However, rank reflects some uncertainty. New populations will probably occasionally be found. It seems possible that there could be over 20 remaining populations and it is difficult to evaluate precise number of viable occurrences. Suffers from a combination of threats which remain serious in some areas although it is protected as an Endangered Species in the United States.

Other Considerations: Island location of largest population makes species susceptible to local extinctions.

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Current Listing Status Summary

Status: Endangered
Date Listed: 07/13/1989
Lead Region:   Southwest Region (Region 2)   
Where Listed: Entire

Status: Experimental Population, Non-Essential
Date Listed: 07/22/2011
Lead Region:   Great Lakes-Big Rivers Region (Region 3)   
Where Listed: Ex Pop, SW Missouri


Population detail:

Population location: Experimental Population in Wah'Kon-tah Prairie in southwest Missouri.
Listing status: EXPN

Population location: Entire, except where listed as an experimental population
Listing status: E

For most current information and documents related to the conservation status and management of Nicrophorus americanus , see its USFWS Species Profile

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Status

Classified as Critically Endangered (CR - A1c) on the IUCN Red List 2002 (1).
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Global Short Term Trend: Relatively stable (=10% change)

Comments: Serious decline has already occurred, beginning after 1920s. In 50 years its geographic range collapsed to less than 10% of its historic range.

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Threats

Degree of Threat: B : Moderately threatened throughout its range, communities provide natural resources that when exploited alter the composition and structure of the community over the long-term, but are apparently recoverable

Comments: Threats include habitat fragmentation, insecticide and bug-zapper use, disturbance of soils, and competition from vertebrate scavengers.

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American burying beetles have been lost from the majority of their former range; populations in the east had largely disappeared by the 1920s, whilst the decline in the American Midwest was well documented in the 1980s (2). One of the major causes of this decline in abundance is the fragmentation of available habitat; leading to changes in the availability of carrion, increased competition, and the isolation of remaining popualtions (2).
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Management

Restoration Potential: Measures to reverse the decline of this species are being considered at this time, but since the area and biological requirements for the long-term viability of populations are unknown, and the factors contributing to the decline of this species may still be unknown (Raithel, 1991), the potential for restoring these populations is difficult to predict. Schweitzer and Master (1987) suggest a rangewide recovery plan could be implemented only with some understanding of the causes for decline. One suggested step toward recovery is the use of reintroductions. Whether there is any unoccupied habitat remaining or whether the populations that exist today are large enough to maintain the species is questionable.

Preserve Selection and Design Considerations: Preserves must contain a continued abundance of food sources for these beetles. Carrion must be between 50 and 200 grams.

Management Requirements: Because the American burying beetle has a highly vulnerable status in the wild, the two known natural populations (Block Island, Rhode Island and eastern Oklahoma) should be protected and maintained. Another requirement is maintaining captive populations for reintroducing the beetle to its historical habitat. Maintaining proper habitat (mature forests), and enhancing new habitat is very important. Enhancing new habitat and open fields can be done by mowing, grazing and burning.

Management Research Needs: Identification and management information on the optimum carrion-producing vertebrates for the American burying beetle is needed. Research on optimum carrion availability will provide information that is necessary for sampling, management and reintroduction efforts. Population modeling information is needed.

Biological Research Needs: Continue to investigate potential reasons for decline, inventory vertebrates and characterize habitat; continue reintroduction efforts, especially on mainland.

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Global Protection: Few (1-3) occurrences appropriately protected and managed

Comments: Block Island sites mostly protected by state, local, and private groups; at least one Oklahoma occurrence is state-owned as wildlife management area. One population in Texas is on a military base, another is on a preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy of Texas.

Needs: Protection of Oklahoma populations; determine ownership of all known OK populations; persue voluntary registry, management agreements, conservation easements, fee acquisition.

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Conservation

The precarious sate of the population of American burying beetles was recognised in 1989 when the species was listed as Endangered on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Endangered Species List (3). A Recovery Plan has been drawn up, and searches for remnant populations are underway (2). In Rhode Island and Oklahoma, the known populations are monitored and their habitats managed, and in Massachusetts a number of beetles, from a captive population at Boston University, have been released (2).
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Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems

Benefits

There are no known adverse effects of American burying beetles on humans.

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There are no known direct positive effects of American burying beetles on humans.

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Where is it Grown

Captive breeding colonies currently exist at the St. Louis Zoo (St. Louis, Missouri) and Roger Williams Park Zoo (Providence, Rhode Island) as source populations for reintroduction efforts and as safe reservoirs for this scarce species. Another maintained at Boston University (Boston, Massachusetts) for several years contributed to much of the research on the reproductive behavior of Nicrophorus americanus. (see references)



American burying beetle rearing containers (Credit: St Louis Zoo)



Zoo staff lay traps with the hope of locating American burying beetles in Missouri. (Credit: St Louis Zoo)

References

  • Kozol, A. J. 1981. Ecology and population genetics of the endangered American burying beetle, Nicrophorus americanus. Dissertation, Boston University, Boston. 164 pp.
  • Kozol, A. J., J. F. A. Traniello & S. M. Williams. 1994. Genetic variation in the endangered burying beetle Nicrophorus americanus (Coleoptera: Silphidae). Annals of the Entomological Society of America 87: 928-935.
  • Kozol, A. J., M. J. Amaral & T. W. French. 1994. The reintroduction of the American burying beetle on Penikese Island, Massachusetts. American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, Annual Conference Proceedings 1994: 112.
  • Kozol, A. J., M. P. Scott & J. F. A. Traniello. 1989 [1988]. The American Burying Beetle, Nicrophorus americanus: studies on the natural history of a declining species. Psyche 95: 167-176.
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Risks

Stewardship Overview: Range was once widespread in North America, but now covers only Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Nebraska. Reasons for decline are not well understood, but habitat fragmentation, human activity, and pesticides are all possible contributing factors. It is difficult to predict whether or not populations can be restored or if existing populations will maintain the species. It is very critical that these populations are protected and monitored. Captive reared populations have been used for reintroduction; the success of reintroduction still remains to be seen. Research on this species is needed.

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Wikipedia

Nicrophorus americanus

Not to be confused with the non-endangered American Carrion Beetle (Necrophila americana) in the same family.

Nicrophorus americanus, also known as the American burying beetle or giant carrion beetle, is a critically endangered species of beetle endemic to North America. It belongs to the order Coleoptera and the family Silphidae. The carrion beetle in North America is carnivorous, feeds on carrion and requires carrion to breed. It is also one of the few species of beetle to exhibit parental care. The decline of the American burying beetle has been attributed to habitat loss, alteration, and degradation, and they now occur over less than 10% of their historic range.

Physical description[edit]

N. americanus is between 25 and 45 mm long and can be identified by its striking, distinctive coloring. The body is shiny black, and on its wing covers are four scalloped, orange-red markings. Most distinctively, there is an orange-red marking on the beetle's pronotum, a large shield-like area just behind the head. N. americanus has orange facial markings and orange tips on their large antennae. The beetle is nocturnal and is a strong flier, moving as far as a kilometer in one night.

Reproduction[edit]

During the winter months when temperatures are below 15 °C (60 °F) N. americanus adults bury themselves in the soil to overwinter. When temperatures are above 15 °C (60 °F) they emerge from the soil and begin the mating and reproduction process. Burying beetles are unusual in that both the male and female take part in raising the young. Male burying beetles often locate carcasses first and then attract a mate. Beetles often fight over the carcass, with usually the largest male and female individuals winning. The victors bury the carcass, the pair mates, and the female lays her eggs in an adjacent tunnel. Within a few days, the larvae develop and both parents feed and tend their young, an unusual activity among insects, but a characteristic shared with the earwig. Brood size usually ranges from one to 30 young, but 12 to 15 is the average size.

The larvae spend about a week feeding off the carcass then crawl into the soil to pupate, or develop. Mature N. americanus beetles emerge from the soil 45 to 60 days after their parents initially bury the carcass. Adult American burying beetles live for only 12 months.

Ecology and behavior[edit]

Historical records offer little insight into what type of habitat was preferred by the American burying beetle. Current information suggests that this species is a habitat generalist, or one that lives in many types of habitat, with a slight preference for grasslands and open understory oak hickory forests. However, the beetles are carrion specialists in that they need carrion the size of a dove or a chipmunk in order to reproduce. Carrion availability may be the greatest factor determining where the species can survive.

Conservation status[edit]

Current and historical range of N. americanus.

Historical records show that this beetle once lived in 35 states of the United States, the District of Columbia, and three Canadian provinces: Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia. Now, natural populations are known to occur in only five states and at least one province: on Block Island in Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Arkansas, South Dakota, Nebraska and Ontario. They have also been reintroduced to Ohio. N. americanus was listed as an endangered species in 1989; the IUCN lists the species as critically endangered. Biologists have not shown why N. americanus has disappeared from so many areas. Widespread use of pesticides may have caused local populations to disappear. The dramatic disappearance of this insect from many areas, however, took place before widespread use of DDT. Lack of small carcasses to bury would prevent the species from reproducing, and changes in land use has reduced the quantity of small- to medium-sized birds and mammals preferred by N. americanus. Even the extinction of the once ubiquitous passenger pigeon may have had a ripple effect on carrion feeders like this beetle.

The immediate goal of conservation efforts is to reduce the threat of extinction by creating captive and wild populations. Biologists have attempted to establish a beetle population releasing laboratory-raised American burying beetles on Penikese Island and Nantucket island in Massachusetts. Biologists return each year to both islands to study the survival and growth of the beetle population.

References[edit]

References[edit]

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