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Celebrating the Lesser Known
Insects, crustaceans, and fungi — among the nation's most unique treasures
By Ben Ikenson
Photo by Brett Cortesi, courtesy of Roger Williams Park Zoo
As their habitat continues to diminish, species like polar bears, tigers, orangutans and other so-called "charismatic mega-fauna" at least still inhabit a prominent place in the public imagination. After all, Leonardo DiCaprio and Julia Roberts insist!
American Burying Beetle
That’s what makes the fact that Louis Perrotti bears the tattoo of an American burying beetle on his forearm so curiously endearing. The director of conservation programs for the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island has spent most of his career devoted to conserving the endangered insect (Nicrophorus americanus), which is as fascinating – and integral to the ecosystem – as the most celebrated wildlife on the African Serengeti.
“Invertebrates break down and recycle the dead and decaying, and, through its remarkably efficient method of dispatching carcasses, the American burying beetle reduces health hazards to humans,” says Perrotti. “This particular species exhibits a high level of bi-parental care that is very unique to the insect world.”
At just over an inch long, the American burying beetle is the largest member of its genus and its ecological role can best be described as “chief undertaker.” It scavenges, buries, and then feeds its offspring the carcasses of birds and small mammals, oftentimes those whose weight is 200 times its own. After burying the dead, the beetle pulls off the fur or feathers and rolls the carcass into a tight ball. Next, it coats the meat in a sticky layer of anal and oral secretions that help keep it from rotting and make it easier for the yet-to-be-born beetles to eat. In a tunnel near the carcass, the female beetle lays up to 30 eggs. When the eggs hatch, the parents feed the larvae with regurgitated food and protect them from other beetles. After feasting, the larvae burrow into the soil until they transform into adults and eventually repeat the resourceful process.
Photo Credit: Anne McDonough/Roger Williams Park Zoo
Perrotti first became interested in the beetle when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) approached the Roger Williams Park Zoo in 1994 to partner on establishing a captive breeding and reintroduction program on Nantucket Island.
The beetle is one of only a handful of insects listed as endangered. Once found in all of the U.S. east of the Rockies, it now exists in only six states: South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and Rhode Island. Experts believe its decline is the result of many factors: Artificial lighting, for example, discourages nocturnal insects, and ongoing habitat alterations have resulted in changing, sometimes unreliable, sources of carrion.
“Like many species, the American burying beetle is threatened by ongoing changes in land use, which has a ripple effect on all resources in an ecosystem,” says Cynthia Maynard, a biologist in the Service’s Charlestown, Rhode Island field office.
According to Maynard, the insect’s decline may have coincided with the extinction of the passenger pigeon, which was an ideal size for beetle feeding. “Also, with the reduction of large predators as a result of development and habitat fragmentation, there are more mesopredators – middle trophic level predators – such as raccoons and skunks preying on animals that are of optimal carrion size for beetles or act as scavengers of carrion that the beetles would otherwise use,” she says.
“But, since the captive breeding program was established, it has become one of our longest and most successful cooperative projects with the zoo," says Maynard.
The 20-year project – perhaps the longest-running invertebrate conservation initiative in North America – introduced more than 3,000 beetles to Nantucket from 1994 to 2006. Since 2006, partners have monitored the reintroduced population for abundance and distribution. All beetles captured during the monitoring efforts are brought back to a lab to be weighed, measured, and marked. Once processed, they are paired up and provided with a titillating dead quail to help augment reproduction.
According to Perrotti, breeding beetles in a lab isn’t difficult. Collecting them is a considerably less pleasant task: “We use pitfall traps baited with rotted chicken...We have a special recipe for rotting the chicken and, well, many field volunteers have vomited riding in the car to field sites with the chicken!”
Like the beetle’s role in the ecosystem, it may sound like a nasty job but it’s a crucial one. “Without insects like these we would be knee-deep in dead and decaying matter,” says Perrotti.
Fortunately, there’s diversity in the biologist kingdom – entomologists like Perrotti, ichthyologists, herpetologists, carcinologists, and so on – whose steadfast convictions compel them to work on behalf of some of the lesser-known threatened and endangered species.
Vernal pool fairy shrimp
Photo Credit: USFWS
For example, the vernal pool fairy shrimp (Branchinecta lynchi), a translucent crustacean that measures less than an inch long, subsists on algae and plankton in ponds in California’s Central Valley and in southwestern Oregon. With absolutely no defense against predators, they’ve adapted to survive in seasonal ponds, where there is considerably less threat from aquatic vertebrate predators. This did not, however, protect it from the destructive effects of urban and agricultural development; the shrimp was listed as a federally threatened species in 1994.
Carol Witham, a consulting biologist with expertise in vernal pool ecology, describes the big role the little shrimp plays: “In addition to their intrinsic value, the vernal pool fairy shrimp is an important food source along the Pacific flyway,” she says. “So much of this area has already been drained, making vernal pools that much more important.”
During their long and arduous flights from as far away as South America to Alaska, Canada geese, great blue herons, tundra swans, mallards, pintails, and other migratory waterfowl rest at the increasingly rare vernal pools. According to the California Academy of Sciences, Pacific Flyway migratory birds and 19 percent of all wintering waterfowl in the continental U.S. take respite here. To these weary travelers, the pools are like long-awaited pit stops. High in protein, fairy shrimp are an important food for these travelers as well as the local crowd of birds, insects, other crustaceans, and amphibians.
Unfortunately, recent years of drought have kept many vernal pools dry. But this doesn’t necessarily mean fairy shrimp populations are diminishing.
“The drought is of course a major issue for many species but the fairy shrimp at least can persist in a dormant state,” says Josh Hull, recovery division chief for the Service’s Sacramento field office. “When the pools are wet, female shrimp lay their eggs, which sink to the bottom and become embedded in the ground when the pools dry. The eggs can survive in this state for years, or until the pool fills again, at which point they hatch.”
While pristine vernal pools are the preferred habitat and necessary for the recovery of the species, these little survivors take advantage of water when they can. In fact, last year Service biologists observed fairy shrimp teeming in a water-laden cattle hoof print.
Regardless, a concerted effort is necessary to conserve habitat for the shrimp—a recovery implementation team with a host of stakeholders, from state agencies, to land developers, to environmental groups and researchers. “Considering the broad swath of land where these pools exist, identifying effective ways to conserve land and protect habitat requires collaboration,” says Hull.
Rock gnome lichen
Photo Credit: USFWS
On the other side of the country, Mara Alexander is a botanist with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Asheville, North Carolina, whose work includes monitoring populations of rock gnome lichen (Gymnoderma lineare), a fungus whose image even the most innovative tattoo artist would be hard-pressed to replicate. Since the Service listed the species as endangered in 1995, she says “We now know of 85 populations of rock gnome lichen; this is an increase from the 35 known populations when the 1997 recovery plan was written.”
Unique to the Southern Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia, where it occurs on high-elevation cliffs or in deep river gorges at lower elevations, the lichen is known to colonize where little else might thrive. By dissolving nutrients in the soil with excreted acids, it creates conditions that promote the growth of plants such as mosses. The fungus also absorbs minerals and pollutants in rain, further making the place in which it lives formidable for its neighbors.
Too much pollution, however, poses a major threat to rock gnome lichen populations. The majority exist at high altitudes, relying on moisture from clouds containing contaminants produced by coal-burning power plants and vehicular traffic. According to Alexander, other threats include recreational use such as rock climbing, which inadvertently sloughs the lichen off rock faces; impacts from the exotic balsam woolly adelgid, which may lead to the desiccation of the moist sites required by the lichen; and possibly climate change.
Of the 85 known populations, 75 occur on land with some potential to afford protection to this species and its habitat. “But continuous monitoring and protection is not occurring at any population, nor are any populations in conserved private ownership subject to a long-term protection management agreement with the owner,” says Alexander. “But we’re working toward better monitoring methods for the lichen and hoping to soon answer questions about this species' genetics and habitat requirements.
“As with so many rare plants and animals, there is still so little we know except that there are complex ecological connections that make conserving them incredibly worthwhile,” she adds.
While it may be hard to imagine celebs clamoring to conduct endangered lichen population surveys or volunteering to trap beetles with the allure of fetid poultry, it’s reassuring to know there’s a larger cast behind the scenes whose work merits ovation.
Ben Ikenson is a New Mexico-based freelance writer.
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