By Sara Shipley, St. Louis Post Dispatch
March 30, 2005

Tim O'Sullivan snapped the lid off a plastic 5-gallon bucket and gingerly reached inside.

"I'm trying not to get bitten here," he said. "They can pinch and draw blood."

O'Sullivan picked up a 2-inch-long, shiny, red-and-black beetle, inspected it, and placed it in a small plastic container lined with a paper towel. Then he took out a yellow sticky note and marked down the beetle's gender (male), which brood it came from, who its parents are, and where they originated.

One down, dozens to go.

"It takes a good half a day (of work) if there are 15 or 20 that emerge," said O'Sullivan, a senior bug keeper at the St. Louis Zoo.

A flood of paperwork has followed an explosion of American burying beetles at the St. Louis Zoo. Since the Zoo started breeding the endangered insect last fall, more than 200 adult beetles have dug out from the dirt-filled buckets where they hatched and dined on decaying quail as larvae.

The captive breeding program has exceeded everyone's expectations, and now the Zoo is literally crawling with the bugs.

"It's unbelievable. And it's growing every day," said Bob Merz, zoological manager of invertebrates.

For the moment, the beetles are being stacked three and four high in individual containers as they await future breeding. But someday soon these bugs may become part of a living science experiment in whether Missouri can save its native prairie ecosystem.

The St. Louis Zoo and its partners would like to release some of the beetles into the wild in the Show-Me State, where they were last seen in the 1980s. The American burying beetle was once an integral part of the region's thriving tallgrass prairies. Now it appears to have disappeared altogether from Missouri, Illinois and most of the other states where it once lived.

Scientists blame a chopped-up landscape and a scarcity of suitable carrion for the beetles to use as breeding nests. The passenger pigeon, now extinct, and the increasingly rare prairie chicken are considered to be two ideal food sources for the beetles.

The Nature Conservancy has proposed releasing the bugs at its 3,000-plus-acre Wah'kon-tah Prairie, located in southwest Missouri near El Dorado Springs. The beetle would be one piece of the puzzle in the environmental group's extensive prairie restoration efforts, which include the prairie chicken, Mead's milkweed and other native species.

"We're at a point in this society where we have to make some choices whether to maintain these biological organisms in our culture or not," said Doug Ladd, director of conservation science for the group's Missouri chapter. "Once they're gone, you can't bring them back."

State and federal agencies are proceeding cautiously, hoping to avoid the controversy that has grown around some endangered species programs.

Private landowners can get spooked by the prospect of federally listed critters on their land. Ranchers revolted when the federal government brought wolves back to Yellowstone National Park. More recently, a Texas developer whose project was squashed because of rare cave bugs wants the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case.

Landowners' concerns are paramount for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

"We are willing to work with partners to think about the opportunities, but until we gather some more information, we're not ready to do it tomorrow," said Peggy Horner, the agency's endangered species coordinator.

Amy Salveter, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Columbia office, said private landowners needn't worry about the bug, which is not a crop pest.

"This, in my opinion, is a benign creature," Salveter said. "It won't cramp anyone's style in terms of how you go about agriculture or recreation or hunting or fishing. We wouldn't even know if this species is on someone's land unless we go looking for it, and we'd have to have a permit to do that."

Salveter said that re-establishing a population of burying beetles in Missouri would be a good test of whether restored prairies are functioning the way they used to. "It would be a fantastic way to show their ecosystem restoration has been successful," she said.

American burying beetles are known for their curious and complex behaviors. They congregate at night around a small dead animal such as a quail or rabbit.

Males and females battle for the carcass, and the winning pair carry off the cadaver. Then they bury it underground and embalm it with a salivalike fluid.

The female lays her eggs near the preserved food source. When the larvae emerge, both mom and dad care for them.

Merz, who refers to bugs as "multi-legged companions," preaches that invertebrates are the foundation on which the pyramid of life is built. Insects pollinate most human food and themselves provide a food source for fish, birds and bats.

"The decomposers, like these beetles, they're the ones who break down nature's garbage," Merz said. "Without them, we'd be ankle-deep in waste."

Republished with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Copyright 2005 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Courtesy of STLtoday.com