Nicrophorus americanus, commonly known as the American burying beetle, is an endangered species currently being reintroduced into the wild by conservationists. As the only purely nocturnal species in the genus of burying beetles; these insects bury, and then lay their eggs inside, the carcass of dead animals like pigeons or quail… eventually feeding their offspring pieces of the decaying corpse.
A recent article by Jane J. Lee at National Geographic describes the dilemma and harrowing conservation efforts in great detail, and features some confounding insights from biologist Bob Merz, director of the Center for American Burying Beetle Conservation at the Saint Louis Zoo in Missouri.
When it’s time to mate and lay eggs, burying beetle pairs will prepare a carcass for their future young.
That usually involves stripping the fur, feathers, or scales off a carcass that weighs 3.5 to 7 ounces (100 to 200 grams)—about the size of a passenger pigeon or a bobwhite quail—and covering it in antifungal and antibacterial secretions. “They form it into a meatball, basically,” Merz said.
Then the beetles bury the carcass in about 9 inches (22 centimeters) of soil. Some enterprising couples will dig a hole several feet down to deposit their ball of dead flesh.
The female beetle then lays her eggs right next to the carcass. When the babies hatch, the parents feed them pieces of the “meatball.”
However, in the late 1980s, the only known natural population was found in Rhode Island. Conversation efforts have since attempted to reintroduce the creatures to Missouri, Ohio and Massachusetts with varying success. Their first reintroduction occurred in June of 2012 during record drought conditions and ultimately proved futile.
Since the demise of these zombie-like creatures seems to be directly linked to the availability of recently deceased corpses, could this conservation effort actually provide researchers with an unexpected, yet profound, look into the natural extinction of the living dead? Perhaps natural order will ultimately dispose of the threat of zombies all by itself.