The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

April 24, 2012

Scientists plan to reintroduce rare American Burying Beetle back to Southwest Missouri

One of the rarest insects in the United States — a beetle that hasn’t been seen in the wild in Missouri in 40 years — will be reintroduced to the southwest corner of the state this summer, officials with the Saint Louis Zoo announced Tuesday.

Plans are to release about 120 to 150 pairs of American burying beetles (Nicrophorus americanus), which were bred in captivity at the zoo, at Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie north of El Dorado Springs. The 4,000-acre site, which spans St. Clair and Cedar counties, is jointly owned and managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation and The Nature Conservancy. It also has been the focus of other restoration efforts, including the greater prairie chicken.

The beetle reintroduction will claim two firsts: It will be the first “nonessential experimental” population of insects to be reintroduced in the United States, and the first endangered insect species reintroduced in Missouri.

Often referred to by biologists as “nature’s recyclers,” burying beetles are aptly named: They bury carcasses of dead animals to provide food for their larvae.

Scott Hamilton, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, described the insect as “perhaps the cleanest competitor for carcasses out there.” The beetles compete for a food source with other scavengers, such as flies and rats, that not only eat carrion but can spread disease to humans.

Burying beetles mate for life and care for their young — one of the few species to do both. At 1 1/2 inches long, they are large for a beetle, but they are not often seen because they live mostly underground and are largely nocturnal.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, no American burying beetle has been found in Missouri since the mid-1970s, when the last known one was collected in Newton County.

Once found in 35 eastern and central states and in Canada, the beetle was placed on the federal endangered species list in 1989, according to Hamilton, who has been a leader in the reintroduction effort. At the time it was placed on the list, there was only one known non-captive population, in Rhode Island. Since then, remnant populations have been found in Arkansas, Kansas and four other states.

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