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American Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus americana)

American Burying Beetle
Nicrophorus americanus
(Order: Coleoptera; Family: Silphidae)
Photo courtesy of: Cornell University-Insect Conservation Biology. 
 
Adult Diagnosis:
Adult beetles are the largest carrion insect in North America weighing up to two grams and measuring up to 45 mm long. Their bodies are shiny black with burnt-orange scallop-shaped markings on the elytra. The pronotum also displays a burnt-orange splotch which is a distinct feature for this beetle. Adults also have orange markings on their faces and antennae tips.  Flight wings are tucked under elytra and are not commonly seen since this beetle is nocturnal and flies great distances at night. All six legs have spines. Males and females are not noticeably sexually dimorphic (although males have larger mandibles typically, in comparison) and can be separated based upon genitalia. 
 
American Burying Beetle: female (left), male (right). Photo courtesy of: Aaron Goodwin, Block Island, Washington County, Rhode Island, USA. 22 June 2006.
 
Adult Natural History: 
Adult and larvae American burying beetles are nocturnal. Adults are good flyers and can sense prey items, per olfactory organs on their antennae, up to a one kilometer away (about two miles). Adults beetles overwinter when temperatures drop below 15°C but are very active when temperatures are approximately 16°C or higher. Carrion size preference is very important to this beetle and has ties to conservation concerns; typically a pair of adult American Burying Beetle will utilize prey about the size of a full grown domestic rat or pigeon.  Adults are commonly mistaken for a close relative, Nicrophorus marginatus which, although similar in coloration, lacks orange on its pronotum. Both sexes of this species take part in parental care and preparation for young. After burying a carcass with her mate, a female will deposit her eggs underground adjacent to the carcass. Brood sizes can reach up to 30 young but average is generally about half of that. When young hatch, parents tend to them for roughly one week until pupation occurs.  Approximately 60 days after mating, young adults emerge from pupation to crawl above the soil and start the life cycle again. The lifespan of an adult beetle is only 12 months. 
 
 
Distribution:
The once wide spread, natural distribution of this beetle across the eastern part of North America has dwindled to six states and one province: Block Island, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Arkansas, South Dakota, Nebraska, Texas and Ontario, Canada. Reintroductions into once historically inhabited states have been achieved but population numbers are not sufficient enough to sustain naturally without human interference.  The closest, naturally occurring location of this beetle, in reference to Kansas, is in Oklahoma. 
 
Current and Reported Historical Range of the American Burying Beetle.
Range map of ABB courtesy of: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 8 August 2004.
 
Current distribution of the American Burying Beetle in the United States.
Distribution map generated by: Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF).
 
Habitat:
It is speculated by conservationalists that American Burying Beetle prefers grasslands and open understory oak hickory forests. American Burying Beetle is thought to be a habitat generalist historically. The major limiting, life-sustaining factor for this beetle is the availability of carrion. 
 
Diet:
Adult beetles are carnivorous and perform a size tradeoff when determining whether prey items are small enough to eat or suitable enough to support young. Adult beetles fight over carrion when multiple beetles are present; the largest males and females win the carrion. Larvae feed upon carrion (for about a week once they have hatched) which is mostly stripped of keratinous compounds such as hair and feathers and covered in decomposing enzymes, secreted by parents, that repel carrion flies and prevent enhanced decomposition of the carcass. Beetle larvae are referred to as grubs. 
 
ABB larvae photo courtesy of: Lou Perrotti, Roger Williams Park Zoo.
 
Conservation status: Critically endangered as listed by the IUCN.
 
Videos: 
American Burying Beetles Released in Fernald Preserve - Cincinnati Zoo 
American Burying Beetle
 
 
Links:
Wikipedia:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
University of Nebraska State Museum: Division of Entomology
Great Plains Nature Center
 
References:
Bishop, A. A., Hoback, W. W., Albrecht, M., and Skinner, K. M. 2002. A Comparison of an Ecological Model and GIS Spatial Analysis to Describe Niche Partitioning Amongst Carrion Beetles in Nebraska. Transactions in GIS. 6 (4): 457-470. 
Kozol, A. J., Scott, M. P., Traniello, J. F. A. 1988. The American burying beetle, Nicrophorus americanus: studies on the natural history of a declining species. Psyche. 95: 167-176.
Raithel, C.  2000. American Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) Recovery Plan.  Endangered Species Bulletins and Technical Reports (USFWS). Paper 29.
Sikes, D. S., Raithel, C. J. 2002. A review of hypotheses of decline of the endangered American burying beetle (Silphidae: Nicrophorus americanus Olivier). Journal of Insect Conservation. 6: 103-113. 
 
Submitted By: Rachel Havlik, July 2014 
 

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