The American burying beetle once roamed as the mightiest scavenger among insects on Missouri prairies. But like the buffalo, it vanished.
A proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reintroduce this unusual and endangered bug to the Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie will be discussed at a public meeting 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday at the El Dorado Springs Community Center, 135 W. Spring St.
American burying beetles feed on dead animals. Their name stems because they have the ability to bury a dead field mouse or a bird the size of a dove up to a foot deep to protect their food from other scavengers. A fast-growing, black and orange insect that reaches more than an inch in length, they’re also among the few insect types that feed and care for their young. They regurgitate food to larvae, much like how some birds feed their young.
Once found in 35 states, scientists don’t know why they have vanished from much of their original range, said Scott Hamilton, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The last documented sighting in Missouri was in Newton County in the mid-1970s. Pockets of wild populations still survive on grasslands in Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and South Dakota. This is the first attempt to re-introduce them in Missouri.
“Every species has a right to exist,” Hamilton said. “Burying beetles were a useful part of the prairie ecosystem. They bury carcasses out of sight, and they don’t spread disease like flies do.”
The burying beetles proposed for release at Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie are raised in captivity at the St. Louis Zoo, which is paying all costs associated with the re-introduction.
Wah’Kon-Tah is a 3,030-acre prairie north of El Dorado Springs. It is owned by The Nature Conservancy of Missouri and the Missouri Department of Conservation, and it is managed by MDC.
Although the American burying beetle is a federally endangered species, the re-introduction will not affect private or public land use in any way, Hamilton said. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is designating the released beetles as a nonessential and experimental population. So no extra protections will be afforded them at Wah’Kon-Tah or in surrounding counties if the beetles become established.
Bob Merz, zoological manager for invertebrates at the St. Louis Zoo, will discuss the species’ natural history at the public meeting. Hamilton will explain the release guidelines.
A public comment period on the re-introduction is open until Aug. 22. For more information, visit http://www.fws.gov/midwest/endangered/insects/ambb/index.html.