Tag Archives: carrion beetle

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.