Can small insects eat larger animals down to the bones? When it comes to American burying beetles, the answer is yes. To feed offspring, a male and female beetle first find, prepare and bury the carcass of a small mammal, bird or reptile. The female lays her eggs near the carcass, and then—unusual for insects—they are attentive parents, feeding the larvae regurgitated food from the carcass. As some other insect groups do, these gravediggers help the larger ecosystem by recycling decaying animals back into the soil.

Formerly widespread across eastern North America, American burying beetles are down to tiny populations scattered in eight U.S. states. To increase the beetles’ numbers, biologists at the Roger Williams Zoo, in Rhode Island, and elsewhere, now rear them in a laboratory. The zoo biologists are working to restart a self-sustaining population on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. And they recently provided burying beetles for a new population to researchers in New York State, where they hadn’t been seen for more than 50 years.

American burying beetle
Nicrophorus americanus
1.2–1.4 inches (3.0–3.5 cm)
Threatened (u.s. fish and wildlife service)
Ecological Role
AMNH Specimen Number
AMNH_IZC 00292284 and AMNH_IZC 00292285
Rhode Island, U.S. (Roger Williams Park Zoo–reared)