July 13, 2017

Editor's Note: For the sixth consecutive year, American burying beetles were reintroduced into the same area of Southwest Missouri by the Saint Louis Zoo's WildCare Institute Center for American Burying Beetle Conservation; the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; the Missouri Department of Conservation; and The Nature Conservancy. Staff from partner organizations and volunteers helped with the reintroduction in the Wah' Kon-Tah Prairie of St. Clair and Cedar counties. This year, 420 Zoo-bred American burying beetles (210 pairs) were reintroduced on June 6 and June 20. Since 2012, the first time this species was reintroduced in Missouri, more than 1,900 of the Zoo's American burying beetles have been reintroduced. We asked three people that participated in reintroductions this year to share their experience with us.

Zoo Teen Alive Volunteers heading to the release. Zoo Teen Alive Volunteers heading to the release.

Aimee Pieper, Zoo ALIVE Teen Volunteer

Participating on the American burying beetle (ABB) release trip has been one of my goals ever since I joined the Zoo ALIVE teen volunteers, the Zoo’s volunteer group for high school students. Although I wasn’t able to participate in last year’s release, I was involved in the caretaking of the beetles. When I learned that there would be another release trip this year, I was determined to be a part of it and am so grateful that I was.

During the ABB release trip, I was able to connect with the prairie and fully understand the importance of preserving the wildlife there. The release of the beetles to their natural environment helps maintain the prairie to its wild roots. Bonding with my fellow teen volunteers and establishing a strong connection to the prairie made my experience more meaningful than I had imagined it would be. I volunteered for this trip because I knew this species was important and needed to be reintroduced to its natural habitat to continue its role in the prairie. I don’t think I actually understood the gravity of their importance until I was placing two beetles in a hole on a dead quail. It was in that moment that I truly understood the importance of their role in maintaining the ecosystem of the prairie, and in turn, the effect the prairie ecosystem has on our ecosystem. They all work together to ensure that life continues by breaking down the dead and helping living things grow.

Upon visiting the prairie and working with the beetles, I unexpectedly learned something about people. It was amazing to see all sorts of volunteers come together to help reintroduce this endangered species of beetle into the prairie. We all cared about their existence and how they affect the prairie. It reminded me that even this small effort to take care of this planet, can have a huge impact. Bob Merz, the director of the ABB Conservation team, said it best, “We carry the torch. We all have the power to change our world, whether it’s by raising awareness, donating, or running for office. We have the capability and potential to change the world, so long as we set out with the purpose of changing it.” 

Volunteers help dig the holes. Volunteers help dig the holes.

Erica Rocha and Madori Spiker, Saint Louis Zoo Behavior Lab Research Interns

We are scholars for the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars program (DDCSP), a program dedicated not only to exposing freshmen and sophomore college students to the field of conservation, but also to the human diversity within the field. Twenty scholars are placed into the program each year and as a part of DDCSP we are placed into institutions that provide valuable internship experiences in the field of conservation. After a summer in our home base of Santa Cruz, California, we set off for St. Louis, Missouri, to start our research internship at its world renowned Zoo. After being in St. Louis for less than 48 hours, we headed to the town of El Dorado Springs in Southwest Missouri. With all of the necessary materials from the Zoo’s Monsanto Insectarium  at our disposal, we set off on our ABB reintroduction. With the beetles, dead quails, shovels, ice chests and our wise and outstanding beetle research team (Bob Merz, Glenn Frei and Kayla Garcia,) we packed the van and were off to El Dorado Springs. During the four hour car ride, Bob, Glenn and Kayla gave us the lowdown about the importance and intricacies of reintroducing the American burying beetle, a critically endangered beetle species native to Missouri that is known for their ability to scavenge for and bury dead animals for food and reproduction.

  Madori (left) and Erica (right) place the American burying beetles in the newly dug holes. Madori (left) and Erica (right) place the American burying beetles in the newly dug holes.

Upon arriving at Wah’ Kon-Tah Prairie in El Dorado Springs, the release site for the beetles, our beetle reintroduction team grew significantly as graduate students with the Missouri Department of Conservation, Zoo ALIVE Teen volunteers, and a couple of residents from El Dorado Springs joined together. Bob gathered the whole group to explain how the reintroduction project has been going and how to handle the beetles and dead quails once we dug the necessary holes. Bob mentioned that about 80 new, wild American burying beetles were found in the reintroduction sites since the latest beetle survey was conducted. He explained that we would dig a 10-12 inch hole with a softball sized chamber inside of it. These holes would be dug on previously marked spots that ABB population surveyors placed in each of the three sites. The large group helping in the reintroduction was split into three smaller groups in order for each group to work on one site at the same time. The subgroup that we were a part of was first given the task at helping at Site 3 and then told to join the other group at Site 1.            

With our shovels, our trowels and adventurous spirit we set out to dig the holes. Site 3 was fairly easy to dig because of the soft soil, however, we were not ready for the hardships that awaited us on Site 1. The rocky soil in Site 1 made everyone involved in the digging effort sweat buckets; however, even though we got tired of digging, we were determined and would not give up on saving our endangered beetle friends. After asking the veteran Zoo ALIVE teens for help, we were able to make significant digging progress. After all 40 holes were dug, every volunteer grabbed a dead quail out of the cooler and set it in its respective chamber for the beetles to feed on and nest in upon their placement. Once the quails were set in their places, it was time to add one male beetle and one female beetle to their chambers. While they are rather large beetles with a mindset of their own, we didn’t want to injure the critically endangered beetles in any way. As Glenn said, “They’re tanks,” and they can handle it.”  So we grabbed the little guys, stuck them on their dead quail and covered the hole. With dirt in our fingernails, ticks on our clothes and sweat dripping from our foreheads, we felt accomplished to have taken part in such an incredible project of reintroducing an endangered species to their native habitat. To see helpers from not only the researchers and Zoo staff, but also the Zoo ALIVE teens, Missouri Department of Conservation, and citizens of Missouri, was extremely inspiring and gave the hope that conservation is a priority for so many. A huge thank you to the beetle team and our mentors at the Zoo for allowing us to take part of this amazing reintroduction.