Purdue University Graduate School
Quinby_final_dissertation.pdf (2.74 MB)

Ecology and Ecophysiology of Burying Beetles in a Fragmented Eastern Deciduous Forest

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posted on 2020-07-30, 18:55 authored by Brandon M QuinbyBrandon M Quinby
Animal species that consume carrion provide an essential ecosystem service by recycling the resource’s nutrients intothe ecosystem. Carrion is an unpredictable and ephemeral resource that is variable across a landscape and is an important resource to many taxa. Furthermore, the colonization of small vertebrate carcasses by different species influences competition and coexistence dynamics, which in turn influence species dominance. The American burying beetle, Nicrophorus americanus(ABB) has recently experienced a dramatic decline in abundance and geographic range. An essential requirement of the ABBs life cycle is the availability of small vertebrate carcasses for reproduction. We know little about the preferred carrion base necessary to support a healthy ABB population. However, we know that reproduction is costly in buying beetles, and physiological trade-offs associated with resource use likely influences metabolic activity, fecundity, and survivorship. Furthermore, successful monitoring of wildlife populations requires reliable estimates of abundance, dispersal, and population demographics. This is often problematic within ABB populations because they are elusive, nocturnal, often occur at low population densities, and are a species of conservation concern. These factors constitute a management and conservation challenge in ecology and conservation biology. Therefore, identifying and evaluating the resources used for reproduction, along with life history trade-offs associated with resource use, in addition to species abundance within a habitat are key requirements for this species’ conservation and management. We used stable isotope analysis of carbon and nitrogen to determine the carrion base used by burying beetles in situ. Additionally, we evaluated resting metabolic rate and the energetics of prehatching parental care using flow through respirometry. Finally, we investigated the utility of using photographs with an individual identification machine learning software program paired with program MARK to estimate population abundances of burying beetles.

Between populations, ABBs are not specializing on either avian or mammalian carrion but are using both natural and provisioned carrion for reproduction. Furthermore, among co-occurring burying beetle species, we observed large niche overlap in both populations. Periods of sexual development and prehatching parental care were periods of elevated metabolic activity, which provides insight into life-history tradeoffs associated with resource quality. Carcass size did not significantly influence the metabolic rate of parents, however, the number of days needed to 13prepare a small carcass was significantly shorter compared to large carcass preservation. Furthermore, beetle pairs on larger carcasses accumulated significantly larger metabolic cost over the course of parental care. Additionally, using digital images of naturally occurring spot patterns on beetles’ elytra, we tested the feasibility and the application of photographic mark-recapture (PMR) using machine learning software. We demonstrated the utility of using PMR in estimating population abundance for Nicrophorusspp. based on elytral spot patterns. Future research is needed to fully quantify reproductive resource use over time, and how it influences ABB abundance in extant and reintroduced populations. For successful management and reintroduction of ABBs, managers must consider the resources used for reproduction, the composition and availability of appropriately sized potential reproductive carrion, they should limit intra-/interspecific competition for carrion resources and need accurate data on species abundance.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Forestry and Natural Resources

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Dr. Elizabeth A. Flaherty

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee co-chair

Dr. J. Curtis Creighton

Additional Committee Member 2

Dr. Matt Ginzel

Additional Committee Member 3

Dr. Mike Jenkins

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