Protection Measures Needed for Nature’s Undertakers

By ABBEY GREENE/ecoRI News contributor

Editor’s note: Fourth and final story in an occasional series this summer by ecoRI News intern Abbey Greene about threatened/endangered animals living in southern New England.

The American burying beetle was once found in 35 states. Now it’s found in only five. In Rhode Island, the beetle is mostly found on Block Island. That is where ecoRI News summer intern Abbey Greene, on vacation with her family, took this picture. She used her grandfather’s glasses to provide scale.

The American burying beetle was once found in 35 states. Now it’s found in only five. In Rhode Island, the beetle is mostly found on Block Island. That is where ecoRI News summer intern Abbey Greene, on vacation with her family, took this picture. She used her grandfather’s glasses to provide scale.

Thanks to the efforts of third-graders at St. Michael’s Country Day School in Newport, who helped get the American burying beetle named Rhode Island’s state insect this year, more awareness has been raised for its protection. The orange-spotted insect is on the brink of extinction.

The American burying beetle once populated 35 states, the District of Columbia and large parts of Canada. Today, the beetle can only be found in five states — Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Arkansas, South Dakota and Nebraska — and in one Canadian province, Ontario. Their numbers have dropped drastically, and scientists are engaged in efforts to help save this colorful insect.

One characteristic that makes the American burying beetle stand out is its sense of care for its young, which is uncommon amongst insects. Both parents become involved with their young, providing them food as soon as they hatch inside their carrion host.

Louis Perrotti, director of conservation programs at Roger Williams Park Zoo, believes this beetle is a priority for us to save.

“Every species is important, but the American burying beetle is important in the ecosystem as a recycler,” he said. “They take dead decaying things out of the landscape and turn it into nutrients for the soil and food for its larva. So without insects like the burying beetle, we’d basically be knee-deep in dead decaying matter.”

Perrotti said the American burying beetle is threatened because of habitat loss and ecosystem fragmentation. When habitat is lost, the first things to go are predators. With predators gone, scavengers become more prevalent because they have nothing keeping them in check. In the American burying beetle’s case, this insect is a specialist that needs carrion of a smaller, specific weight.

The extinction of the passenger pigeon really impacted them, as the carcasses of these birds were just the right host for the beetles. The loss of the passenger pigeon and human impacts such as light pollution, bug zappers and pesticides have taken a toll on beetle populations.

The key to saving the American burying beetle is to reintroduce populations into habitats that can eventually sustain them. The insect is a specialist, meaning it only uses specific carrion as larval hosts. The beetles only use small- to medium-sized carcasses to bury and lay their eggs inside.

The successful reintroduction of the beetle has been carried out on Nantucket and in Ohio. The largest population in the world is actually right off the coast of Rhode Island, on the summer vacation hot spot Block Island.

“This is the only place east of the Mississippi (River) that it still occurs naturally,” said Scott Comings, director of land and freshwater conservation for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) of Rhode Island. The TNC has been working with with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to protect the island’s beetle population.

Comings said Block Island is a perfect habitat for the beetle. With the right kind of carrion, little competition, less light pollution, and a lot less herbicide and pesticide use, the island’s American burying beetle population is thriving.

“The most recent population numbers are strong at over 900 beetles on the island, which is an upward trend,” Comings said.