Beetles that consume dead animals play a vital role in nature’s waste management system.
These insects, belonging to the family Silphidae, are commonly known as carrion beetles. They help decompose carcasses and return nutrients to the ecosystem, maintaining environmental balance.
Carrion beetles display a fascinating array of feeding habits and behaviors. Some species directly feed on the rotting flesh of dead animals, while others primarily consume maggots and other insects found in the carcasses.
This diversity contributes to their effectiveness as natural waste recyclers within various ecosystems.
To fully understand the importance of these beetles, it’s crucial to consider their role in the food chain as well. As scavengers, they prevent the spread of diseases that may arise from decomposing organic matter.
Furthermore, they serve as prey for other animals, such as birds and mammals, underlining their ecological significance.
Overview of Beetles That Eat Dead Animals
Carrion beetles, as the name suggests, are a group of insects that feed on the flesh of dead animals. They are found in North America and are members of the family Silphidae. Some key characteristics of carrion beetles include:
- Attracted to the scent of decaying flesh
- Can fly long distances to locate food sources
- Contribute to the decomposition process
For example, the American carrion beetle (Necrophila americana) is a common North American species that feeds on decomposing carcasses.
Burying beetles or Nicrophorus spp., also known as sexton beetles, are another group of insects that feed on dead animals.
They have distinctive orange or red markings on their elytra and clubbed antennae, which help them detect their food source. Burying beetles exhibit unique behaviors, such as:
- Bury carcasses underground for consumption
- Care for their larvae by providing food and protection
- Can locate carcasses within hours of an animal’s death
A common example of a burying beetle is the Tomentose Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus tomentosus), found in North America.
Comparison Table: Carrion Beetles vs. Burying Beetles
|Feature||Carrion Beetles||Burying Beetles|
|Food Source||Dead animal flesh||Dead animal carcasses|
|Location||North America||North America|
|Unique Characteristics||Attracted to decaying flesh, can fly long distances||Bury carcasses, care for larvae, locate carcasses quickly|
Role in the Ecosystem
Decomposition and Nutrient Cycling
Beetles play a significant role in ecosystems, particularly in the process of decomposition and nutrient cycling. They contribute to breaking down dead animals and recycling nutrients back into the soil.
For example, burying beetles (Nicrophorus spp.), also known as sexton beetles, are large insects with brightly patterned elytra. Their larvae feed on dead animals, helping break down the carcasses and return nutrients to the ecosystem.
The American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) is another impactful decomposer. As an endangered species, the American burying beetle plays a vital role in consuming and recycling organic matter from dead animals.
Key decomposer characteristics:
- Larvae feed on dead animals and break down carcasses
- Nutrients are recycled back into the soil
Prevention of Disease Spread
In addition to nutrient cycling, beetles help prevent the spread of disease by consuming decaying animal matter. This scavenging behavior suppresses the growth of harmful bacteria and limits the presence of pests such as fly maggots.
For instance, the American carrion beetle (Necrophila americana) belongs to the same family as the burying beetle family, Silphidae. They also assist in breaking down dead animals and prevent diseases from spreading.
Another example includes the larvae of some ground-dwelling beetles such as rove beetles, soldier beetles, tiger beetles, and ground beetles that feed on decomposing animal matter, such as feathers, bones, and meat.
Some benefits of disease prevention by beetles:
- Suppression of harmful bacteria growth
- Reduction in pest presence (e.g., fly maggots)
Comparison of beetle types in decomposition and disease prevention:
|Beetle Type||Decomposition||Disease Prevention|
|American Burying Beetle||Yes||Yes|
|American Carrion Beetle||Yes||Yes|
American Burying Beetle
The American Burying Beetle is quite fascinating. They are large, nocturnal scavengers that feed on dead organisms.
One key feature is their striking orange pronotum markings. The beetle can be found in states like Missouri, where they play a valuable role in breaking down carcasses within the environment.
- Diet: Dead animals
- Habitat: Forests, grasslands, and agricultural fields
American Carrion Beetle
Another scavenger in the beetle family is the American Carrion Beetle. It thrives on decomposing corpses, helping control fly populations.
When a dead organism is detected, the beetle can quickly determine the time of death to gain access to the resource.
- Diet: Dead animals and maggots
- Habitat: Woodlands and meadows
Necrodes are a genus of beetles with a preference for dead animal matter. They usually gather around roadkill and other carrion.
Their larvae primarily feed on decaying flesh, playing a critical role in recycling nutrients.
- Diet: Dead animals
- Habitat: Various terrestrial environments
Similar to Necrodes, the Nicrophorus species includes multiple types of burying beetles. A unique feature is their parenting behavior, where they care for their offspring.
These beetles bury small carcasses and lay their eggs, supplying their larvae with both food and shelter.
- Diet: Carrion
- Habitat: Woodlands and grasslands
|American Burying||Dead animals||Forests, grasslands||Orange pronotum|
|American Carrion||Dead animals, maggots||Woodlands, meadows||Quick time of death estimation|
|Necrodes||Dead animals||Terrestrial environments||Feeds on roadkill|
|Nicrophorus Species||Carrion||Woodlands, grasslands||Parenting behavior|
Endangered and Threatened Species
Several beetle species, such as the tomentose burying beetle, are currently considered endangered or threatened. These beetles play a crucial role in:
- Decomposition: Breaking down dead vertebrate animals
- Habitat: Especially important in areas like Minnesota
Factors contributing to this decline are habitat loss, climate change, and competition for resources.
Conservation Programs and Regulations
Various government and private organizations have committed to conserving declining beetle populations:
- Monitoring efforts: iNaturalist, a citizen science initiative, helps track endangered beetle populations.
- Habitat restoration: Maintaining and enhancing habitats to support beetles and other cohabiting species like red mites.
|Nocturnal Conservation||Reduces human disturbance, focuses on night-active beetles||Limited to a specific time period|
|Plant Conservation||Encourages growth of plants vital to beetle ecosystems||May not directly target beetles|
|Endangered Species Act||Provides legal protection for endangered beetles||Can be slow to enforce, may not cover all species|
Diet and Life Cycle of Decomposer Beetles
These beetles are not just harmless to humans, but also contributors to natural ecosystems. Key features of their dining habits and life cycle:
- Diet: Feast on dead vertebrate animals, rotting fruit, and decaying plant matter
- Life Cycle:
- Beetles and fly larvae break down carcasses
- Adult beetles often consume fur or feathers
Together, these conservation efforts and understanding of beetle biology can lead to more effective protection of these crucial species.
Beetles that consume dead animals, particularly those from the Silphidae family known as carrion beetles, play an indispensable role in nature’s waste management.
These beetles, including carrion beetles and burying beetles, aid in the decomposition of carcasses, recycling nutrients back into the ecosystem, and maintaining ecological balance.
Their scavenging behavior not only aids in nutrient cycling but also helps prevent the spread of diseases by consuming decaying matter.
By understanding the unique characteristics and behaviors of these beetles, we can appreciate their vital contributions to our environment and the intricate balance of nature.
Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about carrion beetles. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.
Letter 1 – Australian Stag Beetles: Rhyssonotus nebulosus
Pair of Beetles in Northwestern Sydney, Australia
Sat, Dec 20, 2008 at 4:44 PM
This is my second time writing in, only not for a few years. I was ratting around in a rotten wood pile in my backyard in Galston (which is northwestern outskirts of Sydney), and found this glorious pair of beetles.
I’m assuming by the difference in mandible size that I have a female and male, but for the life of me I cannot find them anywhere on any site. Have you got any clues for me?
Ps: In my last letter, I mentioned getting a bug themed sleeve- well it’s 90% done and I even got the botany bay weevil included in there 🙂
We need to do some research on the identity of your interesting beetles, but we need to rush out of the house right now. We will post the images and research later, but we are also hoping one of our readers can provide a proper identification as well.
Update December 24, 2008
The “unknown Australian beetles” are stag beetles, family Lucanidae. I’ll see if I can’t find out more…..Do I rock or what?! LOL! I found the species of those “unidentified Australian beetles.”
They are stag beetles, family Lucanidae, specifically Rhyssonotus nebulosus. Great name for a really cool insect.
Take care, best to Lisa, too.
December 29, 2008
That’s fantastic! I feel really proud of myself as a budding entomologist that I was able to guess (by body structure) that they were some sort of stag beetle. Thanks heaps.
Letter 2 – Beetle Grub found in Dead Tree
Subject: What am I and can i kill trees?
Geographic location of the bug: Millican Tx
Time: 10:01 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman: Hello, recently i hauled off a dead tree from my mothers house and while cutting it up for firewood, found this Larva stage looking fellow.. id like to know what kind of insect this is and is it capable of killing trees once it burrowed in or was it just looking for a spot to metamorphosis?
How you want your letter signed: Thanks! Vivian Stanley
This is a Beetle Grub, most likely from either the Longhorned Borer family Cerambycidae, or the Metallic Borer family Buprestidae. A single grub will not kill a tree, but a serious infestation might compromise the health of a tree.
You did not indicate what type of tree it was since many Borer Beetles are very host specific. Additionally, you did not indicate the size. Immature Grubs can be difficult to identify with certainty, and we cannot see enough features, including the head, to help narrow down the possibilities.
Thanks so much for your speedy response, i truly appreciate it. The information you’ve provided will be most helpful indeed!!
Letter 3 – Announcing a New Tag: The Big 5
The Big 5 are five potentially dangerous bugs. Though we do not by any means endorse any wholesale extermination of the creatures on this list, we would caution all of our readers to treat these guys, though more are actually gals, with the utmost respect.
They will all bite and or sting, and they are all venomous. There are no doubt deaths that can be associated with most if not all of them, though we would also add that the death to survival rate is very low.
We would now like to introduce you to The Big 5, though we expect that there will eventually be more than five creatures so tagged.
#1: Tarantula Hawk
It’s really big, it flies, it announces itself with a buzz that sounds like a small airplane, and it advertises with aposematic coloration (orange and black), an it has a really big stinger, at least the female does.
There are not many creatures that can take on a Tarantula and win, but the Tarantula Hawk seems to have no problems perpetuating the species by feeding upon the meat of a tarantula during its formative period.
Update: August 9, 2011
We just received this comment on a Tarantula Hawk Posting:
“Went back to the location where I took the Tarantula Hawk Pic hoping to see a bit more. Saw one dragging a male tarantula along and got to close.
You are correct they have a very painful sting, got me on the hand twice. I dropped the camera went back to get it and got zapped again, this time on my calf. Being handicapped and unable to run, though I did a fairly good impression of all three stooges melded into one trying to make my escape, I will take appropriate measures next time I try to get that close to something and its food.
I almost had to have my ring cut off my hand it swelled up so fast. The only pics taken that day were of me after a shot of benadryl, not so hilarious pics taken by my ‘firends’ while I was passed out from the benadryl and drooled on the sofa.
Those stings are about on par or worse with the few scorpion stings I have had in the past. A regular wasp or bee sting pales in comparison. I am just glad that I did not have a very severe allergic reaction. So be warned do not attempt to get to close to these flying strike force wasps once they have their prey in ‘hand’.”
#2: Bark Scorpion
Bark Scorpions in the genus Centruroides are among the most dangerous North American Scorpions. Here is what BugGuide has to say about the sting of several species of Bark Scorpions:
“The sting of most scorpions is not serious and usually causes only localized pain, some swelling, tenderness and some discoloration. Systemic reactions to scorpion stings are rare.
The sting of one of our scorpions, however, Centruroides sculpturatus(until recently thought to be the same as Centruroides exilicauda), the Arizona Bark Scorpion, can be fatal.
Most healthy adults are not at significant risk- only children, with their smaller body size, are in danger (treatment with antivenom has pretty much put a stop to deaths where available, but bark-scorpion stings should still be taken very seriously).
The site of the sting does not become discolored. Another scorpion known to have an intense sting is Centruroides vittatus, but no deaths have been attributed to it directly.”
#3: Red Headed Centipede
Most of our reports of Red Headed House Centipedes, Scolopendra heros, come from Oklahoma and Texas and they are reported to grow as large as 8 inches in length.
All Centipedes have venom, but the Tropical Centipedes in the order Scolopendromorpha are generally considered the ones with the most virulent venom. There are several subspecies of Scolopendra heros, and there are also numerous color variations. Not all individuals have a red head.
#4: Black Widow
With her glossy black body and red hourglass marking, the Black Widow Spider is an icon of warning coloration. The venom of the Black Widow is a powerful neurotoxin, and according to Emedicine Health, it is described as:
“Local pain may be followed by localized or generalized severe muscle cramps, abdominal pain, weakness, and tremor. Large muscle groups (such as shoulder or back) are often affected, resulting in considerable pain. In severe cases, nausea, vomiting, fainting, dizziness, chest pain, and respiratory difficulties may follow.
The severity of the reaction depends on the age and physical condition of the person bitten. Children and the elderly are more seriously affected than young adults.
In some cases, abdominal pain may mimic such conditions as appendicitis or gallbladder problems. Chest pain may be mistaken for a heart attack. Blood pressure and heart rate may be elevated.
The elevation of blood pressure can lead to one of the most severe complications. People rarely die from a black widow’s bite. Life-threatening reactions are generally seen only in small children and the elderly.”
The Cowkiller is a female Velvet Ant, a flightless wasp that is alleged to have a sting painful enough to kill a cow.
Unlike the Big 5, the runner-up, the Paederus Rove Beetle, does not bite or sting, but it can cause an horrific skin reaction by merely touching it.
Though most of our reports of Paederus Rove Beetles have come from Africa, Asia and South America, we did receive a report from Arizona two years ago and one from West Virginia in 2008 in December which we imagine means Creechies can survive the cold. Paederus Rove Beetles also sport aposematic coloration.
Walkingsticks in the genus Anisomorpha are commonly called Two Striped Walkingsticks or Muskmares. The second common name is due to the frequency that these Walkingsticks are found in the act of mating.
These Muskmares are capable of spraying a noxious substance with great accuracy over some distance, and they are good at hitting the eyes of a potential threat. The effects wear off shortly, but will cause the eyes to water and blur as well as sting.
The latest information posted to BugGuide has the potential for harm as more serious: “Members of this genus can deliver a chemical spray to the eyes that can cause corneal damage.”
Update: August 10, 2014
A comment today has prompted us to add the Asp, or Southern Flannel Moth Caterpillar, to The Big 5 tag. This stinging caterpillar is reported to have a very painful sting.
Letter 4 – Another Satisfied Reader
Great website! I found a glow worm in my driveway tonight, and only figured out what it was through your page. I had only heard of them in my childhood memories. What a thrill!
Letter 5 – Another Satisfied Reader
Great website! I found a glow worm in my driveway tonight, and only figured out what it was through your page. I had only heard of them in my childhood memories. What a thrill!
Letter 6 – Beetle Larva
Subject: What is it
July 6, 2017 1:04 pm
This is about an inch long. Flat head with fangs, and stinger or illusion of at end
Was there a nearby body of water like a pond? This looks like a predatory, aquatic Beetle larva.
No pond, in the backyard
We are still sticking with this being a Beetle larva.
Letter 7 – Beetle Grub
What is it!!!!?
I teach at a PreK Center in Houston, Texas. We found this bug on our playground. It was in the mulch that covers the playground. This bug is about 3 1/2 to 4 inches long and about 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter.
This is a Beetle Grub in the superfamily Scarabaeoidea which consists of Scarab, Stag and Bess Beetles. We will see if Eric Eaton knows the species.
Letter 8 – Beetle Guitar
Subject: Meet The Beetles
Location: Valley Ford, Ca.
February 9, 2014 5:52 pm
I built this guitar in 2013, with insects harvested from beetle farms around the world. The effect at guitar shows has been pretty much what I expected, from people being creeped out to people in love with it. One woman asked me, “Where are the beetles from?”, and I told her, “Liverpool.”
The body is a poured polyester resin that took 8 days to complete, and the neck is carbon graphite. I inlaid various beetles on the fingerboard for position markers.
It was quite difficult to construct, and I’m not interested in making another one, so whoever buys it is going to have a unique piece of playable artwork.
Signature: Larry Robinson
We are happy to learn that these were “farmed” beetles and not captured in the wild. For the record, some of the “beetles” you created with the inlay work on the neck are actually true bugs.
Thanks for the reply. I originally wanted to stick with true beetles but was attracted to other species after seeing their markings. I figured you would get a kick out of it.
Letter 9 – Beetle Larva
bug in bend oregon
i found your site today after i found this weird bug in my BED. It looks to me like some kind of larva, maybe even a termite? I don’t usually freak out about bugs but i do not like bugs in my bed i was hoping you could help me out it looks to me like it has the head of an ant but flatter.
it has pinchers or a mouth or what ever that i can see it also has six legs and the rest of it silghtly resembles a worm or caterpilar i killed it olny because in was in my bed.
i had just woken up and didn’t like the fact that it was sleeping with me all night. now i have a dog but she has been with my boyfriend for a couple of days and this thing moved fairly fast so i don’t know how it got in there.
I deffinatly don’t want any more so if it is a larva i want the rest gone too. I Live in Bend Oregon don’t know if that helps. oh yeah i have had it in a sealed container and maybe its the plastic but it sort of stinks.
It looks to us like a beetle larva of some type. Larvae with forms like that are predatory, which means it was hunting prey and somehow found its way into your bed. Do not worry about an infestation. We are forwarding the photo to a beetle expert to see if he can narrow down the possibilities.
Letter 10 – Beetle Larva
What’s THIS bug?
OK, so I’ve just discovered your website tonight and have spent HOURS avidly reading. I didn’t mean to do that but the photos and knowledge are fascinating! It’s bookmarked and I can’t wait to share it with my children tomorrow (which is only a few short hours away: not good!)
Didn’t discover our latest (New Mexico) garden find, however. This is my first time trying to get a close-up pic of a bug, and I didn’t do so well. Two pictures came out sort of focused but don’t show the beautiful coloring. The others are fuzzy but give a hint of the pretty creamy-yellow and black.
The underside has the same creamy yellow with an intricate lacy/dotted black design. The pincers at the head look sturdy enough for me to use care when handling (i.e. chopsticks!).
Somewhere in your website someone described the behavior of this bug well: she said that when disturbed it sort of reared up and shuffled backwards several times. I can’t remember what bug she was talking about but it’s a good description for what I saw.
I also saw it latch on to the abovementioned chopsticks with its pincers and curl its body around, as if to attack. Any info would be appreciated, but especially the most critical information for a novice bug enthusiast like me: identification, garden Friend or Foe, and pincer/stinger/venom information! Can’t wait for a response!
What a nice letter. We are going to give you a quick answer and hopefully get additional information from the expert Eric Eaton. This is a beetle larva, but we are not sure about the species.
It is a garden friend since it is predatory and will help eliminate pests like caterpillars, snails and such. No venom. You might get a slight nip, but it is doubtful the skin will even get pierced. Hope that helps.
We just got Eric Eaton’s response: “Its gotta be the larva of a ground beetle (Carabidae). Might be a Calosoma species at that size.”
Letter 11 – “Fake” Beetle found in Australia
Subject: Bettle or Fly
Location: South Australia
July 27, 2015 8:26 pm
Hi, My friend has found this in her backyard in South Australia. The inscet is around the same size or a bit bigger than a Wine cork. The two pictures attached, we could not get any help from down here. My friend went to collect it but it took off (Dissapeared.)
Is your friend a practical joker? This looks like a fake beetle to us.
Letter 12 – Bark-Gnawing Beetle from Singapore
Subject: Bewildering Fungus eater
September 9, 2014 6:39 am
Hope you’re well.
Was wondering if you could help me narrow down an ID for the attached insect. It was on a dead log together with a lot of fungus weevils and fungus beetles so I suspected it liked the fungus too. I’ve never seen anything like it before. As usual when I see something bewildering I think of you 🙂
Your images are spectacular, and this is truly an odd looking beetle, and we haven’t even a guess at its identity at the time of posting. Alas, we cannot research this at this time because we must rush off to work.
Perhaps one of our readers has a clue or the time to investigate. It does appear to be carrying some Mites on the elytra. The placement of the eyes is quite unusual, almost like those of a frog that lies submerged with only its eyes visible above water.
Hi Daniel and David:
My first impression was that it looked like an odd Jewel Beetle (Buprestidae) but I could find nothing similar online. I believe this is actually a Bark-gnawing Beetle (Trogossitidae), a relatively small and obscure family of beetles.
The dorsal markings resemble some Leperina (=Lepidopteryx) species, but I think there are too many dissimilarities for that to be the correct genus. I believe it is probably a species of Xenoglena, for which the lack of elytral scales and dorsally placed eyes are diagnostic.
Information is generally lacking for Asian Trogossitidae, but Kolibáč (2009) provided a very complete (and technical) description of the family. Google Books provides access to this document – see page 46 for discussion and page 37 for representative pictures of Xenoglena sp.
I have a feeling it could be X. deyrollei, but I have found no image for that species so I really can’t be certain. If you have difficulty accessing that site the same information for Xenoglena sp. is also provided atspecies-id.net.
Despite the common name for the family, these beetles are actually predatory. According to Kolibáč (2009) “Adults dwell on fallen trees and dry branches, hunting for xylophagous insects. They fly and run at great speed and appear very like some jewel beetles in body shape.” Regards. Karl