In Missouri: Valuable Lessons Learned for American Burying Beetle Recovery
By Scott Hamilton,
Columbia ES Field Office
"The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing." - Henry Ford
We failed. Well, more precisely, we don't know if we failed or not. As Fish and Wildlife Service biologists, we are encouraged to write about our experiences and share them in venues such as this one. I was planning to write up my positive experience with our second reintroduction of the endangered American burying beetle into southwest Missouri. After all, our first reintroduction went very well, and our beetles not only reproduced, but they survived a record drought year and their offspring were found this spring.
Volunteers join staff from the Service and St. Louis Zoo to help reintroduce the American burying beetle into Wah-kon'tah Prairie in southwest Missouri. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo by Rick Hansen)
This year's event started off well: it was overcast and in the 70s, and the soil was still soft from rain a couple days previous. We had double the number of people from last year show up (surprisingly) to handle rotten quail carcasses and dig holes in the ground. Roughly 60 people came out, most likely drawn in by the aforementioned great weather, but probably also because the St. Louis Zoo had organized such a smooth reintroduction event last year.
And things went great this year as well. We dug 300 18-nch holes at three sites on a scenic prairie ablaze with wildflowers. Volunteers placed rotten quail in each hole, followed by a male and female beetle. The holes were re-filled, and scavenger-repelling fencing was staked over the holes. We all retired, in good spirits, to a nearby shelter, where we enjoyed refreshments provided by the zoo.
The next morning, the rains came -- about 1.3 inches in a couple of hours. The zoo staff and I drove out to the three sites to see our holes were filled with water, and witnessed seven beetles tunneling out before they were drowned in their underground chambers. There was nothing we could do, so we left. We had planned to monitor the beetles' reproduction by digging up some of the holes and counting the larva after 10 days, so that's what we did.
We were devastated. Roughly 80 percent of the brood chambers had been abandoned, and 13 beetles were found dead. Of the brood chambers we dug up, only three had broods in them, and those were small in size and number. Our only consolation was that the majority of beetles had apparently escaped, and that it was possible that the beetles could fly back to the abandoned chambers to re-use the quail carcasses.
Failure is something that happens regularly, and it is human nature not to broadcast it. But failure makes for a great teacher, and informs our future decisions. For next year's reintroduction, we will hold two events a couple weeks apart, and put half of the beetles into the ground at each event. This will, of course, double the coordination effort for the supplies, volunteers, beetle transport, etc. However, this extra effort should ensure that an unforeseen event, like this gully-washer, will not impact all of our reintroduced beetles.