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Endangered beetle to return to Missouri

(Dan Kirk/Saint Louis Zoo)
A female American burying beetle.

An endangered beetle could be making its way back to Missouri, with some help from the Saint Louis Zoo and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

If all goes well, the zoo plans to reintroduce the American burying beetle to Wah’ kon-tah Prairie in southwestern Missouri in early June.

The 3,020 acre site is jointly owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy and the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Bob Merz directs the Center for American Burying Beetle Conservation at the Saint Louis Zoo. He says reintroduced beetles won't get many of the usual protections for an endangered species.

“So for instance, if a farmer knows that they're on his property and he needs to plow his field, he can certainly plow his field,” Merz said. “If people need to spray pesticide, and even if they know that the beetles are around there, they can spray pesticide.”

Merz says people cannot collect or intentionally kill the endangered beetle, which has only a few small populations left in a handful of states.

The beetle spends most of its life underground, feeding on the carcasses of small dead animals and returning their nutrients to the soil. It does not eat plants or harm people or animals.

Merz says the thumb-sized, black, red, and orange insects used to be common across the US.

“This species of beetle was found in our state up until the mid-1970s, so well-within my lifetime,” Merz said. “And we haven't found it since then.”

Merz says scientists don't know why beetle populations have plummeted, but theories include light pollution and habitat loss and fragmentation.

He adds that the Missouri reintroduction could help researchers better understand the causes behind the beetles decline.

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