St. Louis Zoo tests whether a bug can fly with a back-pack
By Kim McGuire
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
March 19, 2009
Balancing on the end of a piece of wood, the orange and black beetle stretched out her wings and prepared to elude her captors at the St. Louis Zoo.
And had it not been for the radio transmitter glued to her back, she just might have gotten farther than the floor of the research lab inside the Insectarium.
"That's about equivalent to a 100-pound person wearing a 30-pound back pack while they run," said Dan Howard, a researcher from the University of Toronto-Scarborough. "There's only one way to find out if they can do it, and that's why we're here today."
Howard was visiting the zoo on Wednesday to test the transmitters in hopes of learning more about the life cycle of the American burying beetle - a federally endangered species.
The zoo agreed to allow some of their thumb-sized beetles to be test subjects in hopes of sharing information that can be gleaned from the transmitters, which weigh about a third of a gram and are about half the size of a piece of rice.
They'll learn how far the beetle flies, where it seeks refuge during the day and how far it travels at night.
"This is one way the zoo's captive population can help field conservation," said Bob Merz, the zoological manager for invertebrates. "We can do these tests with our beetles in a controlled environment to see if the transmitters work before trying them out on a wild population."
At one time, the American burying beetle was found in 35 states, including Missouri. In 1989, the federal government declared the beetle an endangered species - the first insect ever placed on the list. Today, wild populations can be found only in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Rhode Island.
Some scientists suspect pesticides or habitat loss may be to blame for the beetle's diminishing numbers. Others believe light pollution - the constant glare coming off city street lights and strip malls - may play a role.
The beetles are important because they act as nature's recyclers, feeding on dead animals and disposing of carcasses while adding valuable nutrients into the soil. Mites that hitchhike on beetles kill flies, keeping the pests' population in check.
For the tests conducted at the zoo Wednesday, the keeper glued the transmitters to the part of the beetle's body that shields its head.
The good news was that the glue seemed to work well. There was no real trouble getting the transmitters on or off the beetles. Also, the female beetle in the first attempt was able to extend her flight wings.
But once she took flight, she spiraled to the ground within seconds, obviously burdened by the weight of the tiny transmitter. And she didn't seem to want to try again.
An undeterred Howard said he hoped to work with the Canadian company that makes the transmitters to create one that's even smaller.
"We'll get the bugs worked out," Howard said. "No pun intended."