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Fragile Legacy


Endangered, Threatened & Rare Animals of South Dakota


American Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus americanus)


JPG--species photo species distribution map
Status: Federal Endangered

Description: This species is a large (1-1.4 inches, 25-36 mm) carrion beetle with a large orange-red pronotal disk (upper back below head). Other characteristics include orange antennae clubs, red frons and two pairs of red spots on black wing covers (elytra).

Habitat and Habits: The best potential habitat for this species is thought to be woodlands, grasslands and pastureland where sufficient humus and topsoil allow the beetles to bury carrion (dead animals). The American burying beetle is active at night, when the male and female seek large (50-200 g) carrion. The largest pair will move the carrion forward and excavate the soil out from underneath to a depth of about 4 inches. The carrion is cleaned of fur or feathers, shaped into a ball, cleaned of fly larvae and other organisms and covered with a secretion that slows decomposition. Eggs are laid in a tunnel adjacent to the preserved carcass.

When the eggs hatch, the larvae crawl to the carrion ball where one or both parents regurgitate food to the growing larvae. Adults continue to "groom" the carcass as larvae complete development in about two weeks and pupate in the soil. Adults may be present from July through August. This degree of parental care by both parents is rare among insects.

Distribution: This species was historically widely distributed throughout eastern North America in 32 states, the District of Columbia and 3 Canadian provinces. It occurred from Nova Scotia and Quebec in Canada, south to Florida and west to Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. Presently, only two wild populations are known to exist, one on a New England island and a second at a locaffon in eastern Oklahoma. A specimen recently collected in Nebraska has resulted in continued, extensive surveys to locate additional wild populations. The American burying beetle was collected in Brookings and Union Counties in the 1940s. There have been no recent collections nor sightings in the state.

Conservation Measures: Listed in 1989 as federally endangered, the reasons for this beetle's rarity remain unclear. Captive populations of American burying beetles at Boston University were used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reintroduce the species to a second New England island in 1990. Although successful reproduction occurred, overwintering survival and overall reintroduction success were unknown at the time of this publication.

A recovery plan will help in directing efforts to determine causes of the American burying beetle's decline and with subsequent efforts to reestablish the species in suitable locations throughout its former range. A present conservation measure is the secrecy of known population sites to protect against attracting collectors to the areas.


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