Being a parent is hard, and feeling ill-prepared for the arrival of hungry mouths isn’t a problem faced by only humans. The life of prospective burying beetle parents is a grueling one, as they battle with the elements and other animals to secure a corpse upon which they will build their family.
After tracking down a dead animal, couples of the Nicrophorus genus work together as quickly as possible to bury it in a crypt, covering it to conceal the smells belched out by microbes that have colonized their treasured find. If they don’t manage to bury it fast enough, scavengers may challenge them for the spoils.
The subsequent battles that play out for ownership of a decaying corpse can include anything from rodents to other burying beetles – and when up against another pair of prospective parents, it basically boils down to the biggest beetle wins. It’s crucial that the beetles get good at keeping corpses if they want to pass on their DNA, as when they lay eggs their young will also feed on the body stashed in the beetles’ basement.
It figures, then, that a study published in 2021 found an interesting link between a couple’s success burying their finds and their performance as parents. Led by Professor Stephen Trumbo, the investigation revealed that beetles who were best at concealing corpses also turned out to be better parents.
“We've discovered that the excretions and secretions of these beetles help conceal the scent from their competitors and close relatives that aren't in this group when they manipulate a carcass,” said co-author on the study Derek Sikes to Scientific American’s 60 Second Science. "And when we put those out in the field, [the carcasses manipulated by their close relatives are] more easily found by burying beetles than control carcasses that haven't been manipulated."
"These burying beetles are doing something special to conceal the smell of the carcass.”
It seems safe to assume that the key to successful parenting in the Nicrophorus genus is honing your proficiency in concealing a body, something to think on the next time you find yourself in an incriminating position. While a fascinating observation for evolutionary science, it seems that burying beetles added corpse concealment to the CV a very long time ago, as Sikes estimates these animals have been parenting in this way since the Cretaceous.
So, don’t feel bad if you’re still grappling with the key to good parenting. You’ve got a couple more millennia before you’ve been shown up by a beetle.
(Update: This article was updated on 02/11/2021 to refelct that the study was led by Stephen Trumbo)
[H/T: Scientific American]