American Burying Beetle

Nicrophorus americanus

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Photo of an American burying beetle
The American burying beetle is endangered statewide and nationally. Restoration efforts are under way. This brightly patterned beetle specializes in cleaning carrion from the landscape, burying dead mice, birds, and other creatures.
Dan Kirk, St. Louis Zoo
Endangered
Species of Conservation Concern
Other Common Name
Giant Carrion Beetle
Family

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

Description

The American burying beetle is 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 are not 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, you are much more likely to see our other burying beetles, such as the tomentose burying beetle (Nicrophorus tomentosus). There are about 15 species in the genus Nicrophorus in North America.

Size

Length: to 1¼ inches.

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American burying beetle. it is striped orange and black.
American Burying Beetle

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American burying beetle ready for release
American burying beetle ready for release

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American burying beetle release at Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie
American burying beetle release at Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie
MDC and Saint Louis Zoo employees release captive-raised American burying beetles at Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie

FG-0152_American-Burying_beetle.mp4

Video of American burying beetles.
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 had been extirpated from Missouri. Scientists have been raising American burying beetles in captivity, however, and are having some success in reintroducing them in the wild as "experimental populations." Because of their success, this species' Missouri status has been changed to "endangered."

Foods

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.

image of American Burying Beetle Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Formerly statewide. Now only in limited areas, as reintroduced populations.

Status

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 for this species of burying beetle.

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. Their visual similarity to stinging insects (buzzing heavily like bumblebees in flight, plus the bright red-and-black coloration), no doubt help these harmless beetles to evade predators.