Thursday, April 24, 2014

More Beetles from Bones

Last week I wrote about a few beetle species that I recovered from nearly dry bones here in Colorado Springs. I now have an update, plus additional species found in carrion on a recent trip to a private ranch northeast of Pueblo. It is interesting to note the succession of carrion beetle fauna over time; and the differences in diversity depending on whether the carcass is a large mammal, small mammal, bird, herp (reptiles and amphibians), or fish.

I went back to the bones I found earlier, and discovered some changes as of April 18. I spotted another Northern Carrion Beetle, Thanatophilus lapponicus, before it quickly disappeared, and more dermestids that I previously identified as Dermestes marmoratus. However, a different, smaller species was now more abundant.

Hide and Tallow Beetle, Dermestes talpinus?

I have decided I cannot readily conclude what species are involved here. Twelve species of Dermestes are recorded from Colorado, many of which look nearly identical to each other. The smaller species present on the bones appears to be the Hide and Tallow Beetle, D. talpinus. It is covered in gold or coppery scales on the pronotum (top of thorax), and silvery scales on the elytra (wing covers).

I also found a single specimen of yet another species that is possibly the Fringed Dermestid, D. frischii.

Dermestes frischii?

My wife and I travelled to Chico Basin Ranch on Monday, April 21, mostly seeking spring migrants of the feathered variety. This is a sprawling, working ranch that straddles El Paso and Pueblo Counties, and is managed for both livestock and native wildlife.

Unfortunately, one of the first birds we came across was a deceased Bobwhite quail. Turning it over revealed a shocking diversity of beetle life.

Rove beetles in the family Staphylinidae are predatory, and the ones that visit carrion feed mostly on fly maggots. They are easily recognized by the shortened elytra (wing covers), and are perhaps reminiscent of earwigs.

Hairy Rove Beetle, Creophilus maxillosus

The Hairy Rove Beetle, Creophilus maxillosus, is enormous by staphylinid standards, measuring 11-23 millimeters. These insects fly well, but quickly dig themselves out of sight when uncovered.

Rove beetle, Philonthus politus

Another rove beetle species, Philonthus politus, was also present. It is much smaller, about 10 millimeters. Special thanks to Philip Howe and Max Barclay for suggesting the genus, and Adam Brunke for volunteering the species. Facebook interest groups are a wonderful thing.

Sexton beetle, Nicrophorus sp.

Two species of the family Silphidae were also under the bird carcass: Thanatophilus lapponicus again, and one of the sexton beetles, Nicrophorus sp. Sexton beetles, also known as burying beetles, are big (11-22 mm or so), stocky, and strong. They often work in pairs to dig under the corpse of a small animal, sinking it into the ground. They then chew the carcass into a literal “meatball,” and the female then deposits a small number of eggs in a crater atop the food ball. She’ll chew up small bits of meat and feed them to her larval offspring, cleaning the food of mold and other potential contaminants in her spare time.

Clown beetle, Saprinus lugens

Clown beetles in the family Histeridae are small, spherical, highly-polished insects that play dead or dig when disturbed. They are predatory on other small insects found in carrion, dung, and other unsavory mediums. This one is Saprinus lugens, a common and widespread species measuring 5-8 mm. Thanks to Alexey Tishechkin for the species identification.

Male Scooped Scarab, Onthophagus hecate

Many dung beetles will also visit carrion, such as the little “Scooped Scarab,” Onthophagus hecate. Males have a broad, forked horn projecting over their heads from the top of the thorax. They battle each other for the right to mate with a female. At only 6-9 millimeters, O. hecate is one of the smaller dung beetles.

Hide beetle, Trox sonorae

Last but not least, were cryptic “hide beetles,” Trox sonorae, in the family Trogidae. They are closely allied to scarab beetles. Trogids are rough in texture, and usually so caked in debris as to be nearly unrecognizable as insects. They also play dead so convincingly as to be easily dismissed as living creatures. They freeze in a random, rigid posture when disturbed. This species is only 8-11 millimeters in size, which only makes it even harder to spot. Trox consume dried skin, feathers, and other material when carcasses are in the last stages of decay.

Silphid carrion beetle larva
Dermestes larva

Later in the day, Heidi and I came across the remains of a large livestock mammal, and virtually none of the beetles found on the dead quail were on this much larger vertebrate. Instead, it was carrion beetle larvae, dermestid larvae and adults, and Red-legged Ham Beetles, Necrobia rufipes. There are three common species of Necrobia, all in the family Cleridae. While most clerids are predators, Necrobia adults and larvae actually do feed on carrion, cured meats, and other dried animal products. They can be pests in museums and taxidermy businesses. Ham beetles are about 4-7 mm., but are a lovely metallic blue. They glint in the sunlight as they run over the surface of a dried corpse.

Red-legged Ham Beetle, Necrobia rufipes

Forensic entomology is the study of insects that infest dead bodies. Blow flies (family Calliphoridae) play the most prominent role in crime scene investigations because they can help ascertain the time of death. The life cycle of flies progresses in a predictable fashion, faster at higher temperatures, slower at cooler temperatures. By collecting adults, larvae, and pupae, a criminalist can determine at what time a body was first visited by ovipositing female flies.

Obviously, other insects play a critical role in decomposition as well, and beetles are chief among them. Those of you with strong stomachs may want to examine animal carcasses you come across, as the insects found there can usually be found nowhere else. Just remember to pack the hand sanitizer.

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