Feds give SUNY Cobleskill $140K to help ailing beetle

Associated Press In this 2015 photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an American burying beetle handled by a service employee in Rock Island, R.I.

SUNY Cobleskill’s Wildlife Management Program has been awarded $140,026 through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Recovery Challenge Grant initiative to reintroduce the American burying beetle into suitable habitats in New York state.

According to a media release, the beetle was once abundant across much of the U.S. but, as of the early 1900s, was reduced to only a few isolated populations in less than 10% of its original range, and even those populations are now threatened.

The American burying beetle is a large shiny black beetle with hardened protective wing covers marked by two scalloped-shaped orange patterns. The nocturnal beetle is active only in the summer and is named for its dependence on carrion to support its life cycle. Pairs of parents will scavenge for carrion in the forest, bury it, and use it to feed their larvae.

The beetle had a historic range covering 35 states and three Canadian provinces but by 1989 it was known in only two locations: Oklahoma and Block Island, Rhode Island. There are now confirmed populations in nine states. Still, facing threats of deforestation, pesticide use, competition, and host availability within their habitat, those populations are not expected to survive through 2050, the release said.

“In the last decade or so, we've seen a vast number of insect species in decline. In the case of the American burying beetle, its die-off was closely related to that of the passenger pigeon, which was a main source of breeding support for the beetle,” said Carmen Greenwood, associate professor of fisheries, wildlife and environmental science at SUNY Cobleskill. “We believe that other small mammals and birds that have since filled the ecological void left by the passenger pigeon are now able to sustain populations of American burying beetles. That is what we hope to achieve through our work: sustainable populations that can continue to grow and colonize new areas of woodland across the state and the country.”

The first action item with the grant funding is to bring a breeding colony of beetles to SUNY Cobleskill from Roger Williams Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island, where species conservation efforts are also underway. The Rhode Island beetles are genetically distinct from other populations in that they exhibit behaviors that allow them to cope with the colder weather, such as burrowing deep enough in the soil to survive winter temperatures.

Greenwood and more than 40 students have spent the past five years surveying potential sites around Central New York and the state's Capital Region, studying them for suitability in supporting an American burying beetle population. Surveying involves researching and cataloging the area’s small mammal and insect populations to determine if the beetle can thrive in the environment with little to no change in the existing ecosystem.

The Greenwood Conservancy, just west of Cooperstown and owned by the Peterson Family Charitable Trust, has emerged as the first ideal candidate for population seeding, the release said. Through the grant, SUNY Cobleskill staff and students will work to place the growing breeding colony in that location. They will monitor the colony’s health through the use of humane traps. 

Beetles make up a third of all animal species on Earth, the release said. About 400,000 species of beetles have been described.


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