Carrion beetles play a fascinating role in nature, as they feed on decaying plants and animals.
These beetles, belonging to the Silphidae family, contribute to the decomposition process and nutrient cycling in ecosystems.
The American Carrion Beetle is a well-known example of a carrion beetle, often found near compost bins due to their diet of rotting matter, including fungi and rotten fruit.
These hardworking beetles showcase a distinct appearance, usually black in color with markings of red, orange, or yellow.
Their shell-like forewings, called elytra, are shaped wider toward the end of the body and narrower toward the front, making them easily identifiable.
In order to better appreciate their fascinating life cycle, we must delve deeper into the various stages they undergo.
From egg to adult, carrion beetles experience complete metamorphosis, adapting to their environment and complex way of life.
Carrion Beetles: Overview
Carrion beetles, belonging to the family Silphidae, exhibit distinct physical features.
They typically have flattened bodies with vibrant markings of red, orange, or yellow on a predominantly black exoskeleton.
Their shell-like forewings, called elytra, are shaped wider toward the end and narrower toward the front.
The antennae are often clubbed, aiding in detecting odors associated with carrion.
These beetles are widely distributed across various continents, inhabiting diverse ecosystems such as woodlands, grasslands, and forests.
The American burying beetle, once widespread in North America, has seen a decline in its range, while European carrion beetles are found both in Europe and North America.
Several types of carrion beetles play vital ecological roles.
Notable species include the American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus), the American carrion beetle (Necrophila americana), and the Margined Carrion Beetle (Oiceoptoma spp.).
Each species exhibits unique characteristics, such as different colorations and behaviors, adapted to their specific ecological niches.
Northern Carrion Beetle
Carrion beetles primarily feed on decaying organic matter, including dead animals and plants.
This diet makes them essential decomposers in ecosystems, contributing to nutrient cycling.
Some species, like the American carrion beetle, also consume fungi and rotten fruit, often leading them to be found near compost bins.
Interaction with Ecosystem
Carrion beetles play a crucial role in ecosystems as decomposers, breaking down dead animals and returning nutrients to the soil.
They also help control insect populations by feeding on maggots of flies that compete with beetle larvae.
Additionally, they have mutualistic relationships with mites and play a significant role in forensic entomology.
Carrion Beetle Life Cycle
Carrion beetles undergo a fascinating and complex lifecycle, characterized by complete metamorphosis. This lifecycle consists of four distinct stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult.
Female carrion beetles lay their eggs near a suitable food source, such as a carcass or decaying organic matter.
This strategic placement ensures that the emerging larvae have immediate access to nourishment.
Once hatched, the larvae, resembling teardrop-shaped black grubs, begin feeding on the available decomposing matter.
During this stage, they compete with other decomposers, such as fly maggots, but have the advantage of consuming the eggs of their competitors, reducing competition for resources.
Carrion Beetle Larva
After reaching a certain developmental threshold, the larvae fall to the ground and burrow into the soil to pupate.
Within the pupal case, they undergo a transformation, developing the features of adult beetles.
Emerging from the pupae, the adult carrion beetles continue their role as scavengers, foraging for decaying organic matter to feed on and to lay their eggs near.
Adults showcase distinctive physical features, including vibrant coloration and clubbed antennae, which aid in locating food sources.
Throughout their lifecycle, carrion beetles play a vital ecological role in decomposing dead matter, controlling other insect populations, and contributing to nutrient cycling in their respective ecosystems.
Comparison Between Different Life Stages of Carrion Beetles
|Key Physical Features
|Activities & Behavior
|Other Relevant Parameters
|Varies (typically a few days to a week)
|Small, oval, and often white or translucent
|Development of embryo; vulnerable to environmental conditions
|Laid near suitable food sources; number of eggs laid varies by species
|Varies (typically a few weeks)
|Teardrop-shaped, black grubs; segmented body; chewing mouthparts
|Feeding on decomposing matter; competing with other decomposers; growing through molting
|Larvae undergo several instar stages; ability to consume fly eggs
|Varies (typically 1-2 weeks)
|Encased in a pupal case; immobile; undergoing metamorphosis
|Transformation into adult form; development of adult features
|Burrowed in soil; vulnerable stage with no feeding
|Varies (typically several months)
|Vibrant coloration; clubbed antennae; shell-like elytra; fully developed wings
|Scavenging for food; reproduction; laying eggs; flying
|Active during warmer months; nocturnal; exhibit mutualistic relationships with mites
Interaction With Humans and Other Organisms
Carrion beetles have a unique relationship with humans, primarily through their role in forensic entomology.
These beetles are valuable in criminal investigations, helping to determine the time since death by analyzing their arrival at a scene.
Additionally, carrion beetles contribute to nutrient cycling and decomposition, indirectly benefiting agricultural landscapes and natural ecosystems.
However, their attraction to decomposing matter can sometimes lead them to compost bins and waste areas in human habitats.
One of the most fascinating interactions carrion beetles have is with mites.
This mutualistic relationship sees mites hitching a ride on the beetles to new food sources, such as decaying carcasses.
In return, mites help the beetle by consuming fly eggs, reducing competition and benefiting both species.
Carrion beetles face competition from flies, as both their larvae rely on the same decaying organic matter for nourishment.
Carrion beetles have the advantage of being able to feed on fly eggs, reducing the fly population, and removing unwanted by-products from decomposition, which helps in maintaining ecological balance.
Carrion beetles play a vital role in ecosystems, interacting with various organisms.
By breaking down carcasses, they create habitats and provide food sources for microbes, insects, and fungi.
Some carrion beetles also participate in plant pollination, showcasing their versatility and importance in biodiversity preservation and ecological stability.
Carrion beetles, with their distinctive appearance and fascinating lifecycle, play an indispensable role in maintaining ecological balance and promoting biodiversity.
These members of the Silphidae family are nature’s efficient decomposers, contributing to nutrient cycling by breaking down dead and decaying matter.
Their interactions with humans are notably significant in forensic entomology, providing valuable insights in criminal investigations.
Moreover, their mutualistic relationships with mites and competitive dynamics with flies underscore their adaptability and ecological significance.
Whether it’s aiding in the decomposition process, controlling insect populations, or participating in plant pollination, carrion beetles exemplify the intricate and interconnected web of life in our ecosystems.
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 – Carrion Beetle Larvae from the UK
Insect larvae ID
Location: Peak District…. Northern England
May 1, 2012 7:32 am
Can you please ID these ”mini beasts” found 30/4/12 in the North of England (the Peak District) They are feeding on the remains of a Brown Hare (Lepus capensis) The time was mid afternoon, the weather was fine and sunny after several days of heavy rain.
Thanks and regards Joe Lyman
Signature: Joe Lyman
These are Carrion Beetle Larvae. We are having trouble locating a photo from the UK that supports our identification, however, we did locate some nice line art, including this image from the Insects and Other Arthropods website and this image from Clipart.
The American Carrion Beetle, Necropila americana, is a North American species that can be found on BugGuide. Carrion Beetles perform an important function by contributing to the decomposition of dead animals. This is an awesome photograph.
Letter 2 – Carrion Beetle Larva
Subject: strange larvae of something or other
Location: Missouri, United States
May 22, 2015 10:21 pm
my friend found one of these awhile back and I submitted it but I understand you’re all busy. turns out I’ve found one now too and I’m very curious so I’m submitting this one too in hopes of finding out what it is!
also it DID seem to emit a foul smelling odor when I touched it if that helps to identify it any.
“Adults consume fly larvae (maggots) at carrion, as well as some carrion; larvae eat carrion, maggots, and beetle larvae, may prefer dried skin, bits of flesh after maggots have departed” which may explain the odor you detected.
Letter 3 – Carrion Beetle released
No question just a comment
Hello and thank you. A beetle flew into the house today, and by google I found your site. I was able to find a picture of the little creature. A carrion beetle, we do have lots of animals and a wooded area in our backyard.
I guess it is doing its job, I would prefer it to stay outside!! Now that I know what it is I will turn it loose. thanks for a great site.
Sami from southern Indiana
Letter 4 – Carrion Beetles
I Have No Clue! but we do!
If you can see from the picture- I took some Coquina Shells home from the beach- laid them out to dry and….. I saw about a dozen of these black bugs coming out of the shells the next day- and have no clue if there were brought home from the ocean, or were from my back yard.
I’m without an identification book here, and found your site– can you help identify these awful looking things?? All I can say is thank goodness they are outside!!
The real reason you should be happy the shells are outside should be the stench. Obviously the shells stank badly enough to attract flies as well as Carrion Beetles, Silpha americana. These beetles are attracted to putrification in many forms, including dead animals and fungus.
They perform a necessary scavanging activity as well as being valuable to forensic science by helping to determine the time of death when bodies are discovered.
P.S. Your photo is awesome.
Thanks for your quick reply!! Yes, I know the smell is unbelievable- I knew that would happen, but the beetles!!!! No Way! I’ve just never seen them before, and my first reaction was, well, a typical “girl” response—
Unfortunately, I have noone around with the stamina to dispose of these …. things…..- I assume they will wander away on their own??? Thanks again, just another typical, “you’ll never guess what happened to me” story!
Letter 5 – Feasting Carrion Beetles
Greetings from West Tennessee. Here is a pic of some carrion beetles having a party on some rodent. They look like turtles on a log. This was complete with aromatherapy-Yikes! Love you site.
Rick and Beth
Hi Rick and Beth,
Thank you for the wonderful photo of nature’s sanitary engineers at work.
Letter 6 – Carrion Beetles feeding on Stinkhorn Fungus
Carrion beetles on Stinkhorn
Hello, bugman. I hope my email gets through the flood! I recently found an awesome fungus, an elegant stinkhorn, that was absolutely crawling with carrion beetles. There were quite a few flies, too.
Unfortunately, when I approached to take a picture, the flies flew away, and many of the beetles dropped to the ground! I can certainly see why they would like the fungus, though… it reeked like rotting flesh! Best regards,
Thanks for sending us your photo of American Carrion Beetles, Necrophila americana.
Letter 7 – Hastate Hide Beetles, Not Northern Carrion Beetles
Unknown beach beetle
July 17, 2009
These beetles were discovered during horseshoe crab spawning season on Pickering Beach, Delaware. I’ve yet to find a good match in any of our bug books. We did collect one that looked very dead, but it crawled inside a crab carcass and hasn’t been seen since. Can you help with an ID?
I’ve been visiting periodically since last July when I identified and observed a grapevine beetle from July through the end of November.
Pickering Beach, Delaware
Were it not for the antennae on the individual on the far left, we would say that these are Carrion Beetles, more specifically, the Northern Carrion Beetle, Thanatophilus lapponicus. BugGuide has several images including some mounted specimens. One photo of a specimen from Alberta Canada is a dead ringer, but for the antennae.
The individual in your photo on the far left most certainly has lamellate antennae which Comstock in our 1940 edition on page 41 defines as “the segments that compose the knob are extended on one side into broad plates.” On page 487 of the same volume under the family Silphidae, he writes:
“The segments near the tip of the antennae form a compact club, which is neither comblike nor composed of thin movable plates; sometimes the antennae are nearly filiform.” Finding these beetles during the spawning of the horseshoe crab might be significant.
Since Carrion Beetles are attracted to putrefying flesh, and since there is probably a bit of carnage during the mating, the presence of Carrion Beetles makes sense. Since we have pretty much decided that this if probably NOT a Northern Carrion Beetle, based on the antennae alone, we are stumped.
The lamellate antennae are often found in the Scarabidae, but we aren’t happy with that ID either. We are forwarding this mystery to Eric Eaton to clean up. As a side note, we are thrilled that your photo includes what would seem to be a mating pair in the center, which qualifies this image for our Bug Love page.
Immediately upon posting we decided to do additional research. We backtracked to the superfamily Scarabaeoidea that includes both Scarab Beetles and Carrion Beetles. There we found the family Trogidae, the Hide Beetles.
We found our match, antennae and all, and now we need to try to determine the genus. Our frontrunner is Omorgus scabrosus, based on the drawing of the scutellum by Phil Harpootlian on the family page on BugGuide. That would make this a Hastate Hide Beetle.
Since they are found on carrion in the late stages of decomposition, all that we stated earlier regarding the presence at the Horseshoe Crab spawning holds true. Since our archiving taxonomy is sketchy at best, we will be filing this with the Carrion Beetles.
Letter 8 – Carrion Beetle Larva eats snail in Bulgaria
larva eats snail
July 2, 2010
Today I made new photos of this insect
I hope to help you identify it
Hi again Dean,
Thanks for the better view of this larva’s head. One of our readers, Mardikavana, identified the larva from your previous letter as the larva of a Silphid Beetle or Carrion Beetle. Mardikavana wrote in a comment:
“My best guess is that it is some kind of Silphidae larvae (definitely not Nicrophorus sp.) Well that’s the first family that comes to my mind:)“ and then later: “For example Ablattaria species larvae prey on snails. I think that Silpha atrata larvae should do the same but I couldn’t get any information about their food preferences.”
Update from Dean
July 10, 2010
I continued my investigation on behalf of insect larvae that eat snails ……… and Bingoooo I think that I found the answer to the riddle. Insect that I shot it’s a larva of Phosphuga atrata (Family Silphidae), know under name Carrion Beetle,
This insect is not American Carrion Beetle, as your reader suggested.
Apparently American Carrion Beetle is a close relative of Carrion Beetle, which is found in Bulgaria
My assumptions are based on the fact that I have seen similar beetle Carrion Beetle, American Carrion Beetle but obviously not found in Bulgaria
See the next link – http://www.commanster.eu/commanster/Insects/Beetles/SpBeetles/Phosphuga.atrata.html
Links of images – http://www.google.com/images?hl=en&q=Phosphuga%20atrata%20larvae&um=1&ie=UTF-8&source=og&sa=N&tab=wi
Links of Web – http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=Phosphuga%20atrata%20larvae&um=1&ie=UTF-8&sa=N&tab=iw
Update from Dean
July 10, 2010
Hi again 🙂
I found information that the larvae and the beetles of Phosphuga atrata (Family Silphidae), also known by the name European Carrion Beetle, eat snails
See next URL – http://www.sibnef1.eu/gb/Coleoptera/Silphidae/img139/eco139.HTM
and this pic http://www.sibnef1.eu/gb/Coleoptera/Silphidae/img139/00139002970102.JPG
P.S. Almost one month I read info for this insect and still I’m interested, especially when I find new details 🙂
Thanks for the updates Dean.
Letter 9 – Carrion Beetle Larva
Location: Southern Ohio
June 18, 2011 7:32 pm
Hello, today I found this insect on the sidewalk, it kinda reminded me of a pill bug/potato bug, but as I looked closer, it looked very strange, it was all black, and instead of a little pill bug’s back end, it was alot longer, it had two spikes at the end.
It had six legs i’m pretty sure, and two antennas, from the pictures it may look like a roach, but it didn’t have a solid body, it was more of a pill bugs body, it could bend and turn. It was really fast too.It’s spring still but summer is just in a few more days. It was humid out side very warm.
Signature: Thanks. Jorrdy
You encountered a Carrion Beetle larva from the family Sylphidae. Compare your image to this photo posted to BugGuide.
Letter 10 – Carrion Beetles Accidentally Trapped
Location: San Luis Obispo County, CA
July 8, 2011 1:33 am
I have enjoyed your site and for many years. I am a wildlife biologist in San Luis Obispo County, California. For the last 2 years I have been using camera traps to take images of various carnivores that inhabit state lands. Pierced catfood cans are sometimes used to entice critters to come to the cameras.
When I recently checked a camera, I found that a couple of beetles committed suicide trying to get at the rotting catfood inside. I think they are black carrion beetles (Nicrophorus nigrita). Sorry for the poor pictures.
They were long dead and it was hard to get the dried catfood off of them. I guess the holes I made in the can were just slightly too small… I will make the holes bigger next time.
Signature: Craig Fiehler
At your suggestion, we will tag this as Unnecessary Carnage, though since this accident occurred in the interest of science, we consider it unfortunate, but excusable. Your photos are positively surreal. Thanks for your submission. We are intrigued with your wildlife camera set up.
We have been camera trapping the Chimineas Ranch in San Luis Obispo county for almost 2 years now. Much of our exploits have been described on Dr. Chris Wemmer’s blog, Camera Trap Codger.
I hope you enjoy some of the wildlife shots.
I also want to say “thank you!” for your tireless efforts to educate the public about arthropods. I have been enlightened by your website and your book was a joy to read.
I have been trying to educate myself about insects and arachnids that inhabit the areas where I work. Needless to say, I have much to learn. But I can honestly say, I learn something new from you site every week. Keep up the great work!
Thanks for the update Craig. We are linking to Dr. Chris Wemmer’s blog and we are thrilled you enjoyed reading The Curious World of Bugs.
Letter 11 – Carrion Beetle Larva (we believe) from Japan
Location: NE Japan
July 27, 2011 6:29 am
I’ve just come back from a two week trip in Japan and as well as seeing some amazing shrines and temples I saw some pretty awesome bug life that being resident in the UK where very alien to me (like the Giant Japanese Hornet for example and a (sadly dead) Japanese Rhinoceros beetle).
I’ve managed to identify most of my pics of the critters I saw but was hoping you might be able to help out with the three pics below.
Love you website by the way
This is a larva, and they can often be extremely difficult to identify to the species level. We believe this is a Carrion Beetle Larva from the family Silphidae. Though it is a different species, it does look rather similar to this American Carrion Beetle Larva from BugGuide.
Letter 12 – Carrion Beetles freed from Geodetic Marker!!!!!
Subject: Hundreds of American Carrion Beetles freed!
Location: Beaver Bay, MN
September 6, 2014 7:40 pm
Hi, guys! I know it’s been years since I’ve submitted anything but I’ve never forgotten you. I now live in Minnesota and yesterday got to visit Beaver Bay, way north of Duluth. I came across a geodetic marker that was open, and the pipe was full of American Carrion Beetles that had fallen in and got stuck.
I put a stick in there and it did not take long for them to find their way out. They all stopped for a quick romantic moment…really, they were. It sure looked like it anyway. Within I’d say, 15 minutes, they had all flown away and all that was left were a few ground beetles.
I’m sending an image of them on the stick, and will also send one of them in the pipe as there is I think, a rare Burying Beetle in there, too.
Signature: Joanne, now living in Minnesota (previously Darien and Romeoville, Illinois)
Subject: A possible American Burrying Beetle
Location: Beaver Bay, MN
September 6, 2014 7:55 pm
As far as I can tell, what I’ve found online shows this beetle to be rare up here. It is lacking the distinctive orange or red dot on the pronotum so it might just be a regular burying beetle.
It is in an open geodetic marker with a billion carrion beetles. I helped them all get out. Will send a note to your comments section and tell you the story.
Signature: Joanne, now living in Minnesota (previously Darien and Romeoville, Illinois)
Subject: Intersting Carrion Beetle story
September 6, 2014 8:15 pm
Hi Dan and Lisa! I hope you guys are doing well! It’s been a few years since I’ve posted here, I know, but I’ve never forgotten about you and still check in on occasion.
Here’s my story of the great American Carrion Beetle Rescue.
Yesterday I was in Beaver Bay, MN (north of Duluth) and in my wanderings I found this geodetic marker that was open. As I peered into it my first thought was “Oh, S***, bees. I’m gonna die now.” I slowly backed away and went and got a friend to show her cuz I figured if I’m gonna die she’s going with. She looked in there and said “No! It’s beetles!” And so they were.
Hundreds of beetles stuck in this hole in the ground. They were all crawling on each other. It was just this constant boiling movement of these poor things. So I went and found a stick and put it in there. It took maybe 10 seconds before they started climbing out and maybe 15 seconds before the newly freed beetles started to have what looked like celebratory sex.
They one by one, they flew away. Within about 15 minutes they were gone, save for a few ground beetles. It was a truly amazing sight. I couldn’t get back to close the lid once everyone was free, but the stick is stuck in there pretty good so if any future wandering bugs should fall in they can still get out.
I also saw a ton of grasshoppers but thankfully I have no chiggers. Or ticks. Gah. Ticks.
Take care and thanks for providing this awesome service for all these years!
Signature: Joanne Pleskovich
How nice to hear from you after all these years. The Burying Beetle found amongst all the American Carrion Beetles is NOT an American Burying Beetle, but it is another Burying Beetle or Sexton Beetle in the genus Nicrophorus. To the best of our knowledge, the American Burying Beetle is the only rare and endangered species in the genus.
The American Burying Beetle can be distinguished from other members of the genus, according to BugGuide, because the “orange/red pronotal disc is distinctive.” We only have a single image of an American Burying Beetle in our archives, and we located that image to add to this posting.
Your story is fascinating, and because of your kindness toward all those trapped American Carrion Beetles and the single Burying Beetle, we are awarding you the Bug Humanitarian Award and featuring this posting. Additionally, we have combined your three submissions into a single posting.
Letter 13 – Carrion Beetle Larva
Subject: Black Segmented Tapered
Geographic location of the bug: Northern Virginia
Time: 09:27 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman: Dear Bugman,
While walking in a wooded area near a small body of water, we spotted this cute creature crawling among the leaves and hiding. It crawled in a wavy “S” formation when it changed direction.
Not like pill bugs that seem to keep their segments parallel when they crawl. Its head reminded me of a type of roach I saw in Florida and also a black cricket. Thank you!
How you want your letter signed: A fellow bug enthusiast
Dear fellow bug enthusiast,
This is a larval insects and larvae can be very difficult to identify with accuracy. We believe this is a Carrion Beetle larva from the family Sylphidae. Here is a BugGuide image for comparison. The female Carrion Beetle lays her eggs on or near a recent corpse, and the larvae feed on the rotting flesh, though many species will also feed on fungus.
That’s exactly it! Thank you!