Seen up close, the inch-and-a-half-long insect that raises its young on the rotting carcasses of small birds and mammals is striking in appearance: a heart-shaped orange blaze on a glossy black head, matching bands over a pair of wings, and most prominently, another fiery patch on the pronotum, the dorsal plate that looks a little like a dinosaur’s frill.
Scott Comings cradles a burying beetle in one hand as he stands in hip-high grass at Lewis Farm on Block Island.
He determines its sex by the shape of the coloring above its mandibles, and checks for tiny notches in its wing coverings, or elytra, that will show whether he has trapped this one before and marked it.
“I got a male,” Comings, associate state director for The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island, calls out. “He’s new.”
Michael Amaral, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, records the information in a notebook.
Comings has been trapping burying beetles on this small island in the Atlantic Ocean for 23 years as part of a landmark scientific study and recovery effort. Amaral has been doing it even longer. He’s a founding partner in the project started in 1991 by the conservancy, Fish and Wildlife and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
Both men have developed an undeniable affection for the beetle. Even after decades of research, they can still take a moment to admire a good specimen.
“This guy’s really pretty,” Comings says as he holds it out.
"Yeah, he’s a shiny one,” Amaral responds.
The American burying beetle is in the spotlight these days because of a proposal gaining traction under the Trump administration to weaken Endangered Species Act protections for it. Largely driven by oil and gas companies in the middle of the country, the effort to downlist the insect from “endangered” to “threatened” could open up parts of its territory to well fields and pipelines.
While the insect has stirred controversy in places like Oklahoma, where some see it as a barrier to economic development, it has been embraced in Rhode Island. Block Island is home to the only remaining naturally occurring population of the beetle east of the Mississippi River. It is also the largest documented population of anywhere in the country.
n a book on such luminaries of the animal world as the giant panda and the California condor, the famed naturalist Jane Goodall devoted a chapter to the efforts in Rhode Island and Massachusetts to save the beetle.
After a campaign by third-graders from St. Michael’s Country Day School in Newport, the General Assembly officially declared it the Rhode Island state insect in 2015.
And so, amid the uncertainty stirred up by the downlisting debate, the work on Block Island goes on.
“You want that perfect point between ripe and maggoty,” Comings explains on a misty morning in late June.
He is describing the bait used in the research team’s traps: chicken pieces left outside in a cooler for 10 days — just long enough for the meat to develop the right amount of funk to attract the carrion-loving beetle.
Every June, after adult beetles emerge from their winter hibernation and get ready to reproduce, Comings, Amaral and a handful of volunteers set out 50 traps, spread around Payne Farm, Rodman’s Hollow and Lewis Farm — all protected parcels of land on the island 13 miles south of mainland Rhode Island. They check the traps on three successive days and then repeat the process in August after the new generation has hatched and transformed from larvae into young beetles, called tenerals.
The data that the researchers collect on the beetles, which they capture and free again, unharmed, is used to estimate the insect’s population on the island and track changes over time.
The pitfall traps are simple yet effective. Mason jars are buried in the ground with a square of wood propped over them with sticks to keep out rain. Each jar holds a small container with a wire mesh lid containing some putrid chicken. The odor draws beetles in from the surrounding fields.
Brandon Quinby, a doctoral student at Purdue University who volunteers for the study, compares the beetle’s brain to a computer that runs on binary code.
“The chemical signal says go toward the smell,” says Quinby, who is using genetics to study the beetles’ food web. “They go toward it and then they’re trapped.”
The American burying beetle is the largest of 15 species in the United States in the genus Nicrophorus — a word derived from ancient Greek that means “death bearer.” The beetle searches out a very particular size of carrion, something in the range of 3 to 6 ounces.
The beetle isn’t active in the daytime, but it sets off in flight on summer nights, when the temperature crests 60 degrees, in search of dead birds and rodents. The insect uses toothbrush-like, orange-tipped antennae to detect the chemicals given off by a dead body from up to two miles away.
When a male finds a suitable carcass, it releases pheromones to attract a female. Often they will fight off other beetles desirous of their prize. The pair will bury the body and strip it of feathers or fur. They shape the flesh into a “brood ball” and preserve it with glandular secretions.
After mating, the female lays her eggs in an underground chamber nearby and, once they hatch, carries the larvae to the corpse to feed. They will clean it down to the bones.
Both parents tend to the larvae, whose jaws initially aren’t strong enough to tear off the flesh. They announce their hunger by stroking the mandibles of their parents, which regurgitate food for them to eat. Lou Perrotti, who directs a captive-breeding program for the beetles at Roger Williams Park Zoo, in Providence, affectionately compares the behavior to that of baby birds.
In her 2009 book “Hope for Animals and Their World,” Goodall remarks upon the parents’ unerring devotion to their young.
“How absolutely amazing — an insect species in which mother and father care for their young together!,” she writes.
The rancid smell from the traps gives away their locations. It’s the second day of the June survey and Comings, Amaral, Quinby and DEM wildlife biologist Tanner Steeves are checking them one by one.
The first trap Quinby opens up at Rodman’s Hollow is crawling with American burying beetles and their more common death-loving cousins. He uses long-nose forceps to pull out American carrion beetles, identifiable by a pale yellow patch on their backs, and roundneck sexton beetles, which are similar in color and shape to American burying beetles but lack the orange spots behind their heads. Quinby unceremoniously discards them in the grass.
He passes the American burying beetles to Comings, who marks each new one with a battery-powered medical cauterizer. The procedure takes just a moment and doesn’t hurt the beetle or interfere with its flight or mating ability. The location of the shallow groove that he burns into the beetle’s hard wing cover denotes where it has been caught, on what night, and whether it was in June or August.
Every so often, Quinby cries out in pain after a beetle bites one of his hands using its powerful mandibles. Comings show off a bloody finger.
“I feel like it’s a fair trade,” he says, laughing.
Before Quinby puts the trap back together he spritzes the bait jar with water to keep the chicken moist and shakes it up to get it ready for the next round of beetles that night.
The American burying beetle is a specialist, which may help explain why sometime before 1900 it disappeared from 90 percent of a historical range that stretched across 35 states in the eastern part of the United States and three Canadian provinces. Now, populations are scattered among only a handful of states that, along with Rhode Island and Oklahoma, include Arkansas, Kansas, South Dakota, Texas and Nebraska.
Habitat loss and fragmentation have factored into its disappearance, as has a reduction in the numbers of large predators that feed on scavengers that compete with the American burying beetle. When predators go away, those scavengers become more prevalent and the beetle loses out. Pesticides, too, and light pollution have likely played roles.
There may be other, more specific factors. One theory holds that the beetle’s numbers practically disappeared on the East Coast because passenger pigeons, which were once so prevalent in the skies, were hunted to extinction. In death, the pigeon would have been the perfect carrion size for the beetle. An analogous hypothesis is that the disappearance of the Carolina parakeet led to the beetle’s demise further west.
It wasn’t until 1989 that the beetle was added to the federal list of endangered species. At the time, the only known populations were on Block Island and one county in Oklahoma.
Five years later, under the supervision of Fish and Wildlife, Roger Williams Park Zoo started breeding the beetles, which were then introduced to Nantucket, an island with similar conditions to Block Island. The insect is now established across the eastern half of the island, but studies suggest that the population there is dependent on support from program volunteers who stock the area with dead quails.
On this morning on Block Island, the research team finds 159 beetles in the traps. Over the three days, they will collect a total of 582.
Compared to other places, those numbers are enormous. Surveys on Nantucket have yielded totals of only about 20 or 30 beetles over two weeks of trapping in each of the most recent years.
“To put that in perspective, we had two traps with over 25 beetles in each this week,” Quinby says.
The difference is even more dramatic relative to the Midwest.
Some people who study them in other places have never seen one,” says Amaral, who used to oversee Fish and Wildlife’s national program to protect the beetle.
Why is the population so strong on Block Island? There are many theories, but no definitive answers.
One contributing factor is that the island has no raccoons, skunks or possums, all animals that would compete with burying beetles for carrion.
Another could have something to do with the island’s pheasants, which were introduced in the 1920s for hunting and have become the only self-sustaining population of the species in Rhode Island. Their chicks, which hatch in the spring, are a good size to meet the beetle’s needs. Using isotope analysis, Quinby has found that about a quarter of the Block Island beetles could be using pheasants to breed.
And then there is the level of habitat protection on Block Island. Forty-seven percent of the land on the island has been preserved as open space.
The parcels include grasslands and shrub lands that the burying beetle prefers, places that have become rare in mainland Rhode Island as agriculture has declined and forests have grown in their place and matured. The change in habitat composition throughout most of the state explains declines in populations of such species as the New England cottontail rabbit, the wood grouse and the bobwhite quail.
It’s not known if the American burying beetle was ever found on the mainland, but there is a lack of suitable habitat now.
On Block Island, the former sheep pastures at Rodman’s Hollow are just right for the beetle, as are the cattle grazing fields at Lewis Farm, which, at 72 acres, is believed to be the largest grassland remaining in Rhode Island.
“That’s a landscape you just don’t see very often anymore,” says Amaral.
The beetle’s presence on the island fluctuates from year to year, but the population is generally rising. It is currently estimated to be between 600 and 1,000 beetles. They’re not large numbers.
“But it’s a very healthy population,” Comings says.
It’s difficult to say whether that’s also true in other parts of the country. While the beetle has been found in additional places as more surveys have been carried out, the research is spotty.
Nevertheless, in a 2015 petition to Fish and Wildlife, groups that included the Independent Petroleum Association of America and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right-wing think tank with ties to Sen. Ted Cruz and other Republican politicians, used some of those survey results to argue that the beetle’s range has expanded since 1989 and that it’s not at risk of extinction.
“Species that are inappropriately granted [Endangered Species Act] protections and ‘endangered’ status can cause significant economic harm,” the petroleum association says. “Land development, agriculture, transportation, pipeline, and utility operations are delayed or restricted due to the presence of such a species.”
The association and its allies have won the support of Sen. James Inhofe, the powerful Oklahoma Republican who famously took to the Senate floor with a snowball four years ago to rail against the science of global warming. He and other conservative lawmakers have pushed for years to strip the beetle of all protections, and called for doing the same to other species, such as the lesser prairie chicken, that have stymied mineral and agriculture projects in western states.
Last year, Sen. Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, helped reject a rider on a defense-spending bill that would have accomplished those goals. But the Trump administration has made a concerted effort to weaken the Endangered Species Act, and in May, Fish and Wildlife announced its plan to downgrade the beetle’s status. The proposal would remove permitting requirements for energy projects in certain areas and agricultural and grazing activities in others.
Opponents to the change say the proposal is based on incomplete information and predict that it will turn out to be a mistake. They say that the beetle serves an integral role in the ecosystem, recycling nutrients back into the soil. Weakening its numbers could disrupt the natural order.
“This proposal is a travesty, and once again shows the Service bending over backwards to accommodate special interest polluters at the expense of our natural heritage,” the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, writes.
They also say that reducing protections is risky because, with a lifespan of only one year, the beetle is highly vulnerable to environmental and other changes.The continuation of the species is entirely dependent on each year’s mating cycle.
In its proposal to downlist the species, Fish and Wildlife acknowledges imminent threats to the beetle from climate change. Rising temperatures will make it too hot for the beetle to survive in parts of the Midwest.
That could make the population on Block Island, with its temperate climate, even more important.
It’s early July now and Comings is back at Lewis Farm, this time with Perrotti, director of conservation programs at Roger Williams Park Zoo.
On the final day of trapping in June, Comings, Amaral and other members of the team dug 50 burrows at Lewis Farm and dropped a dead quail — from an online pet-supply store — in each along with a pair of beetles. As an experiment, they also matched up a pair with a dead pigeon that one of the volunteers found.
They provision with quails every year to supplement carrion sources for the beetle. Unlike on Nantucket, it’s not essential, but it does give the beetles a helping hand.
Now, 11 days after provisioning, Comings and Perrotti are inspecting the nests.
Typically, beetle pairs must bury their carcass on the night they find it to prevent other scavengers from stealing it from them. They are strong, able to move up to 200 times their body weight, and they work fast, using their forelegs to excavate under the body. They will dig down at least six inches and up to two feet and then tunnel laterally, pulling the body with appendages on their back legs that Comings compares to meat hooks.
The oral and anal secretions that they use to coat the carcass preserve it by preventing the growth of mold and bacteria. The mixture — which the researchers inevitably describe as “beetle juice” — also curtails the smell of decomposition, helping to hide the burial chamber.
Tiny mites that hitch a ride on the beetles also do their part to preserve the larvae’s food supply by gobbling up any fly eggs that they find.
The eggs hatch six days after laying. A brood will usually number 12 to 15 larvae. They will feed for about 15 days in which they will go through three instars, developmental stages in which they grow bigger, and then pupate, emerging as young beetles sometime in August.
“You want gloves?” Comings asks Perrotti, who kneels beside a nest.
“No, I like to feel with my hands,” Perrotti answers.
He removes a piece of chicken wire used to keep out hungry crows and then reaches down, the tattoo of an American burying beetle visible on his right forearm. He lifts up a clod of grass and soil, moves aside a mess of feathers and then gently scrapes away some dirt to uncover the larvae below. He places them in a Tupperware container. There are 30 in this burrow, a remarkable number.
The larvae are fat and squishy and they leave a trail of inky, malodorous secretions when they’re handled.
“The smell takes forever to get out,” says zoo intern Caitlin Maguire.
She and Perrotti take three from the brood and put them in a plastic tub of the type used for takeout. They seal it up and place it in a cooler that will go back to the zoo with them. In all, Perrotti and Maguire take 36 larvae from the nests to be raised back at the zoo. Once they mature, they will be bred and the next generation will go to Nantucket.
“If there’s a doomsday, and something happens on Block Island, we’ll have a backup population,” Comings says.
After checking all the burrows with quails, he opens up the one with the pigeon, revealing a surprising sight. Unable to move the bigger carcass, the beetles, in a display of resourcefulness, created a nursery inside the body.
A proposal to downgrade protection for an endangered species would typically be something to celebrate, a milestone heralding the successful regeneration of its population. Think of the bald eagle, which was decimated by pesticide use, but after a widespread comeback, was taken off the endangered species list in 2007.
But the downlisting of the beetle is different, say critics, and they aren’t expecting a favorable outcome.
“Whenever politics and conservation mix, politics usually wins,” Perrotti says.
The burying beetle is not the classic animal that people rally around to save. It doesn’t have the presence of a polar bear or the beauty of a tiger, but that doesn’t make its existence any less worthwhile, argues Comings. It’s something that makes Rhode Island unique, he says.
“We don’t have polar bears here,” says Viktorija Butlevska, a seasonal worker with The Nature Conservancy on Block Island. “We have beetles.”
Downgrading the beetle’s status isn’t expected to change protections on Block Island. Even if it results in a loss of funding from the federal government for beetle research, the work on the island won’t end, the project partners say.
As it is, money through the Endangered Species Act only partially pays for some habitat restoration and staff time for the population study. But the bulk of the work is done by volunteers like Amaral or Chris Raithel, the retired DEM biologist who helped found the research program. Steeves says the DEM would find more funding if it had to.
“We will continue,” Perrotti says.
“No matter what happens,” adds Comings.