~ by Katherine Brooks Maria Mitchell Association Volunteer ~
What is black and orange and has six legs? Nicrophorus americanus, commonly known as the American burying beetle. American burying beetle is striking with sleek black & orange wing markings, and acts as nature’s recycler. Nantucket is the site of the only successful reintroduction of the species.
The American burying beetle has even received attention from Jane Goodall in her book, Hope for Animals and Their World: How Endangered Species are Being Rescued from the Brink. Goodall describes the beetle as the “linchpin” of the ecosystem:
“There are stories where one little insect [like the American burying beetle] becomes extinct, and it doesn’t seem to matter. But then it turns out that was a major food source for another creature. So, gradually, there’s a chain reaction, and you can have an entire ecosystem collapse just because one piece was taken out, and we didn’t realize what that would do. “
The American burying beetle is federally listed as endangered. Before making it onto the Endangered Species List, the beetle was common throughout the eastern half of the United States, but now only survives in a few remote habitats. Nantucket’s Maria Mitchell Association has been working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Roger Williams Park Zoo to reintroduce the beetles to the island. The last record of an American burying beetle on Nantucket was in 1926 and after reintroduction; the population is back up to and estimated fifty to seventy beetles each summer.
The American burying beetle is the largest and rarest of its species. These beetles need carrion (dead animal flesh, such as quail or rats) for reproduction. The beetles smell out the carrion, bury it underground, and lay eggs in it. They raise up to thirty new beetles this way. What makes these beetles stand out from most insects is that they provide bi-parental care. The parent beetles take care of their young and help feed them until the young are ready to burrow into the soil to morph into adults.
What brought about the demise of this unique beetle? Scientist are unsure, but theories include the extinction of the passenger pigeon (a perfectly sized bird for this beetle), insecticides, an increase in mammal scavengers, and increases in artificial light at night. Despite these ongoing threats to the American burying beetle’s survival and recent efforts by oil and gas development corporations to remove conservation protections, there is a recovery plan—and Nantucket is at the forefront of brining these beetles back. Nantucket’s lack of mammal scavengers and abundance of birds makes the island a perfect place for reintroduction. And it is important that humans work to save this species. While other beetle species also recycle carrion in the same way the American burying beetle does, losing this beetle species could further weaken struggling ecosystems. “Having redundancy in nature, animals and plants that do the same things and use the same resources, provides resilience. And as climate changes, the environment needs to be resilient to survive,” says Andrew McKenna-Foster, the Maria Mitchell Association’s Director of Natural Science.
In 2006, the Roger Williams Park Zoo began rearing hundreds of the American burying beetles in captivity for reintroduction. This species is very inexpensive to work with and the original rearing facility was a converted men’s restroom facility at the Zoo. For a few thousand dollars a year, the Zoo was producing about 500 beetles annually. The reintroduction of one large mammal, like an individual wolf or oryx, can cost well over $10,000.
Since the start of the Nantucket reintroduction program, the population on Nantucket has been monitored and tracked. Zoo staff and Maria Mitchell Association interns, trap, weigh, measure, and tag beetles, and then release them. On the east side of Nantucket, there are sixty traps throughout twelve sites on land owned by the Massachusetts Audubon Society and the Nantucket Conservation Foundation. The traps are simple: glass jars set in a hole in the ground with rotting chicken (to simulate carrion) and a sponge to provide moisture. The holes are covered with wire to keep out crows and other animals and foil to keep out the rain. Everyday for about twelve to fourteen days in June, McKenna-Foster and his team go out daily to check the traps. They count the number and types of beetles in the trap, but are really looking to collect any American burying beetles. The beetles are cared for in the Natural Science Museum until late June when the males and females are paired and then buried with a quail carcass.
The quail provisions help keep the beetle populations high, but to test whether the population is self-sustaining, McKenna-Foster and his team have reduced the amount of quail provided from over 100 to less than twenty-five. By reducing the quail carrion, the team has recorded a significant decrease in the beetle population suggesting this population is dependent on human assistance. Even with the drop in population, this collaborative effort between Nantucket nonprofits, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Roger Williams Park Zoo has led to the “most successful reintroduction of this species on planet Earth” according to McKenna-Foster. The reintroduction of these beetles has come with challenges such as unknown amounts of available carrion on Nantucket, problems estimating the re-introduction population size, and a short active-season, which can be greatly affected by weather. Despite these obstacles, what is particularly important is the dedication that this team of scientists has toward this project.
June 2016 started this year’s active season for the burying beetles. The photograph shows Lou Perrotti (Director of Conservation Programs at the Roger Williams Park Zoo); Andrew McKenna-Foster; and MMA intern and senior at Earlham College, Elisabeth Sorrows, counting beetles at one of the twelve trapping sites on Nantucket. Perrotti spearheaded the American burying beetle reintroduction program, which has been flourishing for twentytwo years, and he continues to teach young scientists, like Sorrows, the importance of helping this indispensable part of the ecosystem.
Nantucket may be small, but the island is doing great things for conservation through its local nonprofits such as the Maria Mitchell Association. Scientists, such as Lou Perrotti, are dedicated to learning more about the creatures we share planet Earth with. Perrotti recently discussed the impor tance of the American burying beetle project and preserving this delicate part of our ecosystem during the Maria Mitchell Association Science Speaker Series that features a different speaker every Wednesday night at 7pm at 33 Washington Street.
The MMA was founded in 1902 to preserve the legacy of Maria Mitchell and to promote her belief in learning-by-doing. An astronomer and natural scientist, as well as an educator, Maria Mitchell shot to worldwide fame when she discovered a comet in 1846. For her discovery, she was awarded a gold medal from the King of Denmark – the first American and first woman to receive the honor. She served as the Professor of Astronomy and Mathematics at Vassar College from 1865 until 1888. Today, the MMA operates two observatories, a natural science museum, an aquarium, and the birthplace of Maria Mitchell. The MMA conducts scientific research, leads classes and workshops for people of all ages yearround, and welcomes thousands of visitors to its museums and observatories. For details, visit mariamitchell.org.