Reintroduction of species is culmination of years-long research project to preserve biodiversity of New York’s forest ecosystems

SUNY Cobleskill’s Environmental Management Program has been awarded $140,026 through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Recovery Challenge Grant initiative to reintroduce the American burying beetle into suitable habitats in New York State. The beetle was once abundant across much of the United States but, as of the early 1900s, was reduced to only a few isolated populations, or less than ten percent of its original range, and even these populations are now threatened.

The American burying beetle is a large shiny black beetle with hardened protective wing covers marked by two scalloped-shaped orange patterns. The nocturnal beetle is active only in the summer and is named for its dependence on carrion to support its life cycle. Pairs of parents will scavenge for carrion in the forest, bury it, and use it to feed their larvae, offering a level of offspring rearing that is uncommon among beetle species.

The beetle had a historic range covering 35 states and three Canadian provinces but, by 1989, it was known in only two locations: Oklahoma and Block Island, R.I. There are now confirmed populations in nine states. Still, facing threats of deforestation, pesticide use, competition, and host availability within their habitat, these populations are not expected to survive through 2050.

“In the last decade or so, we’ve seen a vast number of insect species in decline. In the case of the American burying beetle, it’s die-off was closely related to that of the passenger pigeon, which was a main source of breeding support for the beetle,” said Dr. Carmen Greenwood, associate professor of Fisheries, Wildlife & Environmental Science at SUNY Cobleskill. “We believe that other small mammals and birds that have since filled the ecological void left by the passenger pigeon are now able to sustain populations of American burying beetles. That is what we hope to achieve through our work: sustainable populations that can continue to grow and colonize new areas of woodland across the state and the country.”

The first action item with the grant funding is to bring a breeding colony of beetles to SUNY Cobleskill from Roger Williams Zoo in Providence, R.I., where species conservation efforts are also underway. The Rhode Island population of the beetles are genetically distinct from other populations in that they exhibit behaviors that allow them to cope with the colder weather, such as burrowing deep enough in the soil to survive winter temperatures.

Dr. Greenwood and more than 40 students have spent the past five years surveying potential sites around Central New York and the state’s Capital Region, studying them for suitability in supporting an American burying beetle population. Surveying involves researching and cataloging the area’s small mammal and insect populations to determine if the beetle can thrive in the environment with little to no change in the existing ecosystem.

The Greenwood Conservancy, just west of Cooperstown, N.Y. and owned by the Peterson Family Charitable Trust, has emerged as the first ideal candidate for population seeding. Through this grant, SUNY Cobleskill staff and students will work to successfully place the growing breeding colony in this location. They will continually monitor the colony’s health through the use of humane traps. This method will quantify the number of American burying beetles and related species surviving in the immediate area.

Other sites surveyed by the College include the Albany Pine Bush Preserve and the Huyck Preserve in Rensselaer, N.Y.

Conservation researchers Paul R. and Anne Ehrlich posited that species are to ecosystems what rivets are to a plane’s wing. Losing one might not be a disaster, but each loss adds to the likelihood of a serious problem (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1981). We are currently losing the planet’s biodiversity at a rate ten to 100 times faster than normal. Over one million species of plants and animals face extinction in the next few decades. Every organism, large and small, plays a role, roles we may not fully understand. Some models suggest that a loss of 20 percent of our biodiversity puts our global ecosystem function at risk, and, that we may lose 18 to 35 percent of our biodiversity due to the direct and indirect effects of climate change in the next few decades (Thomas et. al. 2004).

Beetles make up a third of all animal species on Earth. About 400,000 species of beetles have been described.

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