Burying Beetles Make Nature’s Tupperware

  • Burying beetles make goop with their bellies.
  • They coat dead animals in it to preserve the meat and hide it from other scavengers.

You hear about the global extinction rate of 150 species disappearing every day, and you figure most of those are probably just gnats and weeds. But then you learn about a single insect who does stuff that’s exceptionally gross/cool, and you have to wonder how much we’re missing out on by trashing the earth. Burying beetles used to live across 35 states in the US, but their territory has diminished in the past century to just the Midwest and Rhode Island, and they’re now critically endangered.

Scavengers are also hoarders and thieves.

Photo by Bambang Suryadi from Pexels

They’re big, about an inch long, shiny black, with splotches of red on their head, neck, and shoulders. It’s not about looks with the burying beetle, but some enviable biological features they have built-in for survival. They got the name burying beetle because (you guessed it) they bury stuff. The scavage dead and decomposing food and save it for their future offspring. Kind of like the insect version of starting a college fund for your infant. 

Researchers published a new study this week in The American Naturalist about the way they bury food. The beetles produce a “goop” from their abdomens. When they find a dead thing, like a bird or mouse, they field dress it, ball up the decaying flesh, and cover it in the goo. Scientists now think the goo acts as nature’s Tupperware, keeping the meat from decomposing too rapidly while hiding it from other scavengers. 

It seems like the goop is more than just your standard Tupperware. It’s also scented with compounds that repel other scavenger insects, like writing “tuna sandwich” on your lunch bag in the employee fridge, so no one messes with it. 

Just a bunch of Ph.D.’s watching bugs dig up dead mice.

Photo by Sebastian Unrau on Unsplash

This must have been a fun study to conduct. The researchers took mouse carcasses and covered some of them in the goop collected from obliging beetles. They buried both raw and gooped remains in the woods and observed the scavenger activity in the area. The gooped remains were far less likely to get discovered than the ones treated with burying beetle goo. 

It’s not curing-cancer or COVID-vaccine level remarkable, but it’s awe-inspiring the biological adaptations that even beetles have to survive. They’re able to produce a chemical compound that repels scavenger insects, but they can also recognize as being their own. How many of us can’t find our car in the grocery store parking lot after 45 minutes?