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What Is a Burying Beetle?

By R. Stamm
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The burying beetle is the most well-known beetle in the carrion family. The word “carrion” refers to the carcasses of dead animals on which these beetles feed. The beetles eat small vertebrates such as birds and lizards, but they first bury them entirely under the soil to use later for food. The male beetles help take care of the female's young until the youngsters are old enough to leave the nest.

Burying beetles are the largest carrion beetle in North America. They have large antennae with sensors to help them find dead animals over long distances. The body is hard-shelled, shiny, and black with bright orange markings on the back or top. Specifically, these orange markings appear in four bands on the wing case and the face of the beetle.

Once a carcass is detected, the beetles must fight for it with females fighting females and males fighting males. The beetle that wins buries the carcass deep into the soil, strips the carcass of its fur or feathers and then forms it into a ball. The female makes a nest, using the fur or feathers, in a chamber above the carrion to lay her eggs. After the larvae hatch, the parents feed them until they are old enough to eat off the carcass.

The habitat of the burying beetle is not known, but they have been spotted in areas where carcasses are found. Common locations where carrion beetles live include portions of Southern Canada and throughout the Eastern United States. They have also been observed along the edges of forests, in grassland prairies, and scrub lands.

Populations of the burying beetle are declining, and in some places, the burying beetle has disappeared altogether. In fact, this species is facing the threat of extinction and was placed on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Endangered Species List in 1989. Possible reasons for this threat stem from human activity and development causing a loss of the beetle’s food source. The remaining populations are isolated in smaller areas, causing an increase in competition between surviving beetles for food.

Conservation efforts to save the burying beetle are underway. The Fish and Wildlife Service are searching for populations of the beetle throughout the United States. Once a population is found, it is monitored and managed to secure the survival of the beetles. Boston University raises populations and releases those populations into the wild to add to the numbers in the state of Massachusetts.

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