Speaking of Beetles: Dr. Brandon Quinby on Finding a Path in Unexpected Places

As with many occurrences in nature, happening upon the American Burying Beetle was a case of being in the right place at the right time. It’s how Adjunct Instructor Brandon Quinby discovered his affinity for the insects. Becoming part of a larger effort to save the species from the threat of extinction is what brought him to SUNY Cobleskill.

Dr. Quinby describes himself as a non-traditional, first-generation college student. At Purdue University in Indiana as a 23-year-old undergraduate, he originally thought that a career in veterinary medicine was in his future. It was around this time, and through the help of a faculty mentor, that Quinby experienced an epiphany.

“My mentor engaged me in undergraduate research, and I thought, ‘wow, this research thing is really cool. Maybe this is what I should be doing,’” said Quinby. “ I always liked learning about new things and sharing that information with others and I started realizing that a career as a college professor would be something I’d be good at and it would give me a chance to speak to students who were similar to me: non-traditional first-generation students.”

Through that research, Quinby worked on projects that examined aggression behaviors in crayfish and serotonin levels associated with their aggression. He was hired as an undergraduate technician over one summer in which he followed butterflies and measured their flight patterns in the field for conservation purposes. But it wasn’t until his senior year that Quibny would discover the path that would lead to him becoming a college professor.

“I was taking ecology and animal behavior classes and at that same time I was looking at programs for my Master’s degree. I found a program at one of Purdue’s satellite campuses where there was research being done on these things called burying beetles.”

Quinby contacted the professor and said he wanted to get involved. That professor would later became his Master’s advisor and would also serve on Quinby’s Ph.D. committee.

“I always knew that I wanted to work at a college where I could get involved in undergraduate research that focuses on teaching and showing students that they too can do this as a career. That is how it happened for me, and now I see myself as a conduit through which students can find their own path.”

The American Burying Beetle was put on the endangered species list in 1989 and is the focus of one of the longest-running, invertebrate endangered species conservation efforts in U.S. The species was once found across 32 states and four Canadian provinces. Today, there are only six populations surviving west of the Mississippi River, and one population east of the Mississippi, on Block Island off the coast of Rhode Island. The beetle hasn’t been present in New York since the late 1930s or early 1940s.

Dr. Quinby, along with Professor Carmen Greenwood and grant funding from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, are leading a project to reintroduce the beetle to suitable habitats around New York with the goal of creating a growing and sustainable mainland population.

“In the United States, researchers who study the American Burying Beetle are mostly focused on conservation in the regions where the beetle is naturally found now and monitoring those populations. We are the first and only reintroduction project associated with a university. There are similar reintroduction efforts in Ohio, Missouri, and Massachusetts, and all of them are being headed up by zoos.”

Beetles currently bred at SUNY Cobleskill are a sister species to the American Burying Beetle, taken from New York and Block Island populations. This species will be used in experiments to understand how the beetles will fare in locations identified by researchers at the College.

The eastern population features genetic components that are unique and that are absent in the western populations. By ultimately establishing a population of American Burying Beetles from the eastern population here in New York, there is a better chance of maintaining genetic diversity within the species while ensuring that they can survive harsh weather conditions in the northeast.

So far, more than 30 students have participated in the research behind the College’s reintroduction effort. “To see people who really might not be interested in insects but might find an interest or path in other components of the project, it fills my heart, so to speak,” says Quinby.

When asked why this project is so important, Quinby says there are multiple arguments to be made for the American Burying Beetle’s place in nature, and why it deserves our help.

“They are really efficient at nutrient recycling. The beetles find dead carrion, bury it, mummify it, and raise their young on it. They are quicker and more efficient at recycling nutrients than bacteria or fungi. What’s more, is that both males and females provide parental care, and that’s really unheard of in the insect world.

“There is an ethical argument as well. The reason why the American Burying Beetle disappeared from most of its historic range is due to how humans adjusted and manipulated the landscape. You can think of biodiversity as a bicycle wheel. You can remove a spoke here or there, meaning a species, and the bicycle will still be sound. But which spoke do you remove to make the bicycle wheel collapse? We don’t know. Even though there are other burying beetle species in New York, this one was here. What effect did it have on the ecosystem by removing it?”

The reintroduction will be a multi-year process releasing the beetles, then studying their health and their population growth over time. More than just hopeful for a successful reintroduction of the beetle, Quinby hopes the longevity of the project will allow many more students to find their path within Environmental and Wildlife Management studies and beyond.

“Burying beetles were my pathway. Learning about the complexities of their life cycle, the ecosystem services that they provide, and how humans have impacted the largest burying beetle species in North America, really shaped my outlook on research. It is a species that I’ve grown to love over the years, and I love sharing that passion with my students.”


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