Some beetles try hard – and are disgusting – for their young.
They look for dead mice or birds, dig holes and bury them, pluck their feathers or feathers, roll their flesh into balls and cover them with excrement – all to feed their future offspring.
Now scientists think that goo may do more than just slow decay. It also seems to hide the scent of rotting bounty and enhance other odors that repel competitors.
“It helps them hide their resources from others,” said Stephen Trumbo, who studies animal behavior at the University of Connecticut and led the new research, published Thursday in The American Naturalist. “They’re trying to keep everyone away.”
Beetles – called burial beetles – are not the only creatures that try to trick their competitors or prey on cunning and subtle tactics. The big blue butterfly, for example, will mimic certain sounds to manipulate ants. Corpse flowers produce a foul odor to attract pollinating insects that feed on decaying matter.
The importance of this interaction is increasingly being recognized, said Alexandre Figueiredo, a biologist at the University of Zurich, who was not involved in the new study.
Burial beetles and other animals that feed on carcasses – including vultures, squirrels, and grubs – race against each other to track down carcasses. Competition is stiff even among burying beetles, which use special antennas to detect remains from afar.
The grave beetle is relatively large, about an inch long, and black with orange markings. The intestinal secretions they spread on the carcass are antibacterial, and slow down decomposition. Trumbo and his colleagues wondered if they were also preventing their rivals from smelling the smell.
To find out, they collected gas carried from dead, hairless rats preserved by a type of grave beetle found in forests across North America. The researchers then compared the gas to gas from the carcass that was not touched.
The prepared beetles secrete less of the onion-smelling compound that normally attracts burial beetles to fresh remains. They also found an increase in another gas of putrefaction that is known to prevent other insects that eat the animal from dying.
Next, they took down the dead rats in the Connecticut forest. They found beetle rivals were less likely to find one covered in the error.
“If you can prevent other scavengers, even for a little time, that can provide you with a lot of benefits,” said Daniel Rozen, a biologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands who was not involved in the new study.
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The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. AP is fully responsible for all content.
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