For five years, state officials and researchers have been trying to bring back an endangered beetle species that disappeared in Missouri more than 40 years ago. Now, they're counting the bugs to see if there's enough of them for a sustained population.
The American burying beetle, once found in 35 states, now exists in just six. What caused the species to decline is unknown, but conservationists in Missouri, along with groups in Ohio and Massachusetts, hope to find answers through projects that put the insect back into the wild.
Officials and volunteers have been releasing the beetles, bred at the St. Louis Zoo, to the Wah'Kon-Tah Prairie near El Dorado Springs in western Missouri.
"Every year, we find more beetles in each of the surveys," said Bob Merz, director of the Zoo's Center for American Burying Beetle Conservation. "We know that the beetles are overwintering there, which is a really big deal."
Missouri Department of Conservation officials have set up traps to come up with an estimate for the beetle population. If at least 500 insects are counted, then re=introductions will stop, but scientists will continue to monitor them.
The American burying beetle gets its name for burying the animal carcasses it feasts on — perhaps not the most endearing activity. But Merz said that by doing this, the insects are turning and enriching the soil. Removing the carcasses also controls fly and certain predator populations, like raccoons.
In addition to releasing the beetles into the wild, conservationists are also providing them with food, namely dead quails. Andrea Schuhmann, natural history biologist at the Department of Conservation, said officials are curious to see if the bobwhite quails and other animals that live in the prairie will be enough to sustain the beetles.
"The question is the beetles that are now the offspring — are they able to find their own resources and reproduce on their own?" Schuhmann said.
There are a few possible theories that could explain the decline of the American burying beetle, such as
changes in food resources or light pollution, said Merz. However, scientists won't know for sure until they see how these new beetles survive after being reintroduced to places where they've disappeared from.
"If we can have success here in Missouri, we can help replicate this in other states where the beetle has also gone extinct," Schuhmann said.