American burying beetle: The meat-eating insect that buries bodies for its babies to feast on

an american burying beetle close up face on
(Image credit: Chicago Tribune/Getty Images)

Name: American burying beetle or giant carrion beetle (Nicrophorus americanus

Where it lives: U.S. and Canada

What it eats: Dead animals

Why it's awesome: The American burying beetle exhibits a rare behavior for its kind — parental care. And to take it a step further, both the male and female are involved in this duty. 

Upon emerging from hibernation in late spring, the males and females search for mates — and importantly, a dead vertebrate. It's a bit of a Goldilocks mission to find just the right size carcass — between 2.8 and 7.1 ounces (80 and 200 grams) — for what's ahead. Once beetles find a suitable carcass and mate, and any potential competitors shooed off, the male and female get to work. Not mating just yet, but working together to bury the carcass underground. 

Once this step is complete, they can finally mate and create a brood chamber. The duo strips the dead animal of its fur (or feathers) and then rolls it into a ball, before coating it with a mix of anal and oral secretions that reduce decay.

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They lay the eggs in the soil next to the carcass, and once hatched, the parents feed the larvae regurgitated food before the young progress to feeding directly on the carcass.

Generally a female with a larger carcass produces more eggs, but sometimes they choose their incubator poorly. If the parents don't pick a large enough carrion for the number of larvae, they will cannibalize some of the brood — a brutal but effective method to improve the survival of their surviving larvae. 

The American burying beetle is the largest of the carrion beetles in North America. It measures up to 1.8 inches (4.5 centimetres) in length, and has distinctive orange-red antennae tips and a large orange-red marking on its pronotum (the section behind the head). 

The American burying beetle is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, as it had become extinct across much of its natural range. Scientists are now working now to breed and reintroduce the species, and in 2015 it was chosen as the state insect of Rhode Island

Editor's note: This article has been corrected to say the American burying beetle is the the largest of the carrion beetles in North America.

Megan Shersby
Freelance science writer

Megan Shersby is a naturalist, wildlife writer and content creator. After graduating from Aberystwyth University with a BSc (Hons) degree in Animal Science, she has worked in nature communications and the conservation sector for a variety of organisations and charities, including BBC Wildlife magazine, the National Trust, two of the Wildlife Trusts and the Field Studies Council. She has bylines in the Seasons anthologies published by the Wildlife Trusts, Into The Red published by the BTO, and has written for the BBC Countryfile magazine and website, and produced podcast episodes for its award-winning podcast, The Plodcast