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Photo By Bonnie Miller. Image may be subject to copyright.
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Nicrophorus americanus Olivier, 1790

American Burying Beetle

Federal Protection: No US federal protection

State Protection: No Georgia state protection

Global Rank: G3

State Rank: SX

SWAP High Priority Species (SGCN): No

Element Occurrences (EOs) in Georgia: 1

Habitat Summary for element in Georgia: Natural habitat may be mature forests but also found in grasslands and old fields


Description

By far the largest Nicrophorus species, adults are 20.0-35 mm (0.8-1.4 inches) in total length. The pronotum is mostly orange with a black border. The frons portion of the head and the club of antennae are also orange. Each elytron has two transverse orange maculae, the maculae do not reach the suture. Males and females can be easily distinguished by markings on the clypeus. Males have a larger rectangular orange shield, whereas females have a smaller orange triangle.

Similar Species

Easily distinguished from other Nicrophorus species by its large size and the orange pronotal disc.

Habitat

Early investigators suggested that N. americanus required mature deciduous forests with deep, humic soils. However, recent studies have demonstrated that this beetle exhibits an especially wide niche breadth and may occur in a variety of habitat types − including grasslands, oak-hickory forests − so long as an abundant source of carrion (of an approximate size and in reliable numbers) is present.

Diet

These beetles utilize small mammals (including rodents) and birds (e.g., Northern Bobwhite) as their primary sources of carrion. They are known to feed, and lay their eggs on, carcasses as large as 0.66 pounds (300 grams). Carcasses between 50-200 grams are adequate for rearing their young.

Life History

Burying beetles (Nicrophorus spp.) are remarkable because they exhibit advanced parental care. Numbers of adult male/female N. americanus are attracted to fresh carrion. Competition (including direct combat) occurs until, typically, only one male and one female remain with the carcass. The adults may cooperate in burying the carcass, but individuals of either sex are capable of burying it alone. The adults remove hair or feathers from the carcass and it is then rolled into a ball and treated with oral and anal secretions. Eggs are laid in the soil close to the carcass and altricial larvae hatch within a few days. They are fed regurgitated carrion by both parents. The larvae are soon able to feed on their own and, approximately two weeks after the adults had first buried the carcass the larvae pupate in the soil nearby. Adults emerge from the pupal stage about 1.5 – 2 months later. Adults often harbor numbers of phoretic mites which are known to reproduce alongside the beetles. Adults defend themselves by oozing a foul-smelling substance from their anus that smells like rotting flesh. Six species of Nicrophorus (in addition to N. americanus) are known from Georgia (N. carolinus, N. marginatus, N. orbicollis, N. pustulosus, N. sayi, and N. tomentosus). All are commonly encountered on and dependent on carrion except for N. pustulosus which is a canopy species and parasitoid of snake eggs. Nicrophorus tomentosus is a bumble bee mimic.

Survey Recommendations

None at this time.

Range

Extirpated from Georgia. The few, now very old, records for Georgia include two from the Piedmont (Fulton County, 1940; Haralson County, 1908), and a questionable record for the Coastal Plain (Charlton County, 1912) (see U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1991). Historically, this beetle was distributed throughout 35 states and three Canadian provinces in temperate Eastern North America from Nova Scotia to western Nebraska and from the upper peninsula of Michigan to Texas. By the latter half of 20th century it had disappeared from over 90% of its historic range, including Georgia. This dramatic decline has never been adequately determined, but was likely due to declines of small mammals and bird species (of an ideal size and mass) that offered optimal sources of carrion. At this time, American burying beetle populations are limited mostly to the western fringe of the species historic range. Currently, there are extant sites found in seven states (Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas). The species has been reintroduced into four areas: Nantucket Island (Massachusetts), southwestern Missouri, southwestern Ohio, and southeastern Ohio. Overwinter survival of reintroduced beetles has been verified in Massachusetts and Missouri, and monitoring efforts are ongoing to determine the success of the Ohio reintroductions.

Threats

Georgia Conservation Status

Extirpated.

Conservation Management Recommendations

There are none at this time. Currently, there are no efforts to reintroduce this beetle, federally listed as endangered, into Georgia.

References

Amaral, M., A.Kozol, and T. French. 1997. Conservation status and reintroduction of the endangered American burying beetle. Northeastern Naturalist 4:121−132.

Bedick, J.C., B.C. Ratcliffe, W.W. Hoback, and L.G. Higley. 1999. Distribution, ecology and population dynamics of the American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus Olivier [Coleoptera: Silphidae]) in south-central Nebraska, USA. Journal of Insect Conservation 3: 171−181.

Kozol, A.J., M.P. Scott, and J.F.A. Traniello. 1988. The American burying beetle, Nicrophorus americanus: Studies on the natural history of a declining species. Psyche 95: 167−176.

Lomolino, M.V., J.C. Creighton, G.D. Schnell, and D.L. Certain. 1995. Ecology and conservation of the endangered American Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus americanus). Conservation Biology 9(3): 605−614.

Ratcliffe, B.C. 1996. The carrion beetles (Coleoptera: Silphidae) of Nebraska. Bulletin of the Nebraska State Museum, Volume 13.

Ulyshen, M.D., and J.L. Hanula. 2004. Diversity and seasonal activity of carrion beetles (Coleoptera: Silphidae) in northeastern Georgia. Journal of the Entomological Society 39(3): 460−463.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1991. American Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) recovery plan. Newton Corner, Massachusetts. 80 pp.

Authors of Account

Dirk J. Stevenson

Date Compiled or Updated

1 December 2018

Nicrophorus americanus (American Burying Beetle) caught in a rat trap Photo by Stephen Spear. Image may be subject to copyright.