Sunday, August 3, 2003

Scientists work to help endangered beetle

The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - Scientists at Ohio State University are trying to reintroduce the American burying beetle to the state's woods.

The 1.5-inch, black-and-red insects are undertakers of the forest floor. They bury the carcasses of animals chipmunk-size or smaller and lay eggs in them - speeding decomposition and enriching soil.

The last American burying beetle seen in Ohio was spotted near the Old Man's Cave portion of Hocking Hills State Park in the mid-1970s.

The species was once widespread in grasslands and woods, but now is classified by the federal government as endangered. It's found in the wild only on Block Island, R.I., and in parts of Arkansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Re-establishing the beetles might help researchers determine why the species died off, when six other species of burying beetle still live in Ohio.

"Why this species?" entomologist Dave Horn said.

Ohio State entomologists are using a $5,000 grant from the state Department of Natural Resources to breed more beetles and spread them in the wild, starting near Athens. The money comes from income-tax checkoffs.

Horn has released the beetles since 1998 at the Waterloo Wildlife Experiment Station in Athens County. He released some a few weeks ago and plans to release more next week.

The underground life makes tracking them difficult, he said. A survey last year found just three.

Every extinct species is a loss to both the diversity of life and the potential of new discovery, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Kim Stevens. Insects may have undiscovered qualities such as anti-bacterial properties, she said.

The beetles have few enemies in nature because of a simple but effective defense.

"You pick them up and they squirt out this noxious smell," said John Herbert, a graduate student who works in the insect lab.

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