COBLESKILL, N.Y. (NEWS10) – SUNY Cobleskill’s Environmental Management Program was awarded $140,026 through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Recovery Challenge Grant initiative to reintroduce the American burying beetle into New York State. The beetle was once abundant across much of the country. But, as of the early 1900s, the population was reduced to less than 10% of its original size.
The American burying beetle is a large shiny black beetle with hardened protective wing covers marked by two scalloped-shaped orange patterns. The nocturnal insect is active only in the summer and is named for its dependence on decomposing animals to support its life cycle. Parents will look for decomposing animals, bury them, and use it to feed their larvae. This offers a level of offspring rearing that is uncommon among beetle species.
The beetle used to cover 35 states and three Canadian provinces. By 1989, it was known in Oklahoma and Block Island, R.I. There are now confirmed populations in nine states. Still, facing threats of deforestation, pesticide use, competition, and host availability within their habitat, these beetle populations are not expected to survive through 2050.
“In the last decade or so, we’ve seen a vast number of insect species in decline. In the case of the American burying beetle, it’s die-off was closely related to that of the passenger pigeon, which was a main source of breeding support for the beetle,” said Dr. Carmen Greenwood, associate professor of Fisheries, Wildlife & Environmental Science at SUNY Cobleskill. “We believe that other small mammals and birds that have since filled the ecological void left by the passenger pigeon are now able to sustain populations of American burying beetles. That is what we hope to achieve through our work: sustainable populations that can continue to grow and colonize new areas of woodland across the state and the country.”
The first action with the funding is to bring a breeding colony of beetles to SUNY Cobleskill from Roger Williams Zoo in Providence, R.I., where species conservation efforts are also underway. The Rhode Island population of the beetles are genetically distinct from other populations in that they exhibit behaviors that allow them to cope with the colder weather, such as burrowing deep enough in the soil to survive winter temperatures.
Dr. Greenwood and over 40 students have spent the past five years surveying potential sites around Central New York and the state’s Capital Region to see sustainability. Surveying involves researching and cataloging the area’s small mammal and insect populations to determine if the beetle can thrive in the environment with little to no change in the existing ecosystem.
The Greenwood Conservancy, just west of Cooperstown, emerged as the first ideal candidate for breeding. Through this grant, SUNY Cobleskill staff and students will work to successfully place the growing colony in this location. They will continually monitor the colony’s health through the use of humane traps.
Other sites surveyed by the College include the Albany Pine Bush Preserve and the Huyck Preserve in Rensselaer.