Woodland family values: carrion beetles

Matt Schrader, my colleague in the Biology Department, keeps colonies of burying beetles in his lab. He studies the evolution of their behavior, especially the care that the parent beetles bestow on their young.

Nicrophorus beetles find small carrion — mice and birds — then bustle over the cadaver, preparing it for the young. Many species shave the corpse, some roll it into a ball, and a few chew then regurgitate the meat to their young. The growing beetles therefore live under the protection of their parents, an unusual arrangement among beetles, most of whom pass childhood without knowing solicitous parental care.

Nicrophorus tomentosus (the gold-necked carrion beetle) larvae on a mouse cadaver.

Nicrophorus tomentosus (the gold-necked carrion beetle) larvae on a mouse cadaver.

Other species, especially bacteria and fungi, also want to feast on the dead meat, so the parents paint the corpse with an antibacterial exudate. When threatened, the ooze also serves as a stinking defense mechanism.

Stay away...and have a free dose of antibiotics.

Stay away…and have a free dose of antibiotics.

Like other carrion beetles, Nicrophorus tomentosus have orange and black stripes across their wings. This is probably a warning signal to potential predators, like the bands on a poisonous caterpillar. Keep off, we taste bad. When the beetles take to the air, they reveal another signal: they sound and look like bumblebees in flight. Underwings are bright yellow and thrum just like a bee. Another layer of defense, perhaps?

Stripes.

Stripes.

Underwing yellow. The flight of the bumblebee, interpreted by a carrion beetle.

Underwing yellow. The flight of the bumblebee, interpreted by a carrion beetle.

Another moniker for these beetles is the “Sexton Beetle”: These animals are the caretakers of the forests’ graves, with more flashy garb than their human counterparts.

2 thoughts on “Woodland family values: carrion beetles

  1. Stephen Truslow

    I’ve read a number of Bernd Heinrich’s books and his one titled “Life Everlasting”: covers this fascinating area of life being recycled through death.

    Reply
  2. Joanna Brichetto

    So, with all those tasty dead things available year-round, do Nicrophorus also go for nectar and or pollen? I ask because I’ve read that carrion flies and carrion beetles are the likeliest pollinators of pawpaws, given the smell of the flower and the time of year. Wondering if the beetles are fooled by the odor or if they are actually hankering for a pawpaw nectar / pollen buffet?

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s