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Scientists attached tiny weights to some burying beetles to test their parental and survival instincts

Posted March 23, 2018

Caring for your offspring is a strong instinct many animals have. It is not limited to mammals – even some species of beetles stay close to their young, feeding and protecting them. However, in many cases beetles act somewhat careless, leaving their offspring for lengthy periods of time. Scientists attached tiny weight to burying beetles and noticed that they cared for their young more. Why?

Burying beetles are caring parents – both male and female parents take care of their offspring. Image credit: Syuan-Jyun Sun via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

This may be a weird research to do, but it did reveal something interesting. Scientists from the University of Edinburgh studied burying beetles – which are known for their intensive parenting. Both male and female parents of the burying beetles take care of their offspring, staying in close proximity and feeding them. Researchers attached tiny weights to bodies of several females. This gave them a noticeable physical disadvantage, making them slower and less active. Then scientists compared them to other females that were not given such disadvantage. They found that beetles with weights spent more time caring for their young.

Female burying beetles with weights spent more time feeding and protecting their young. But why would that be the case? It seems like being disabled should put beetles in a survival mode, making them care more about themselves. However, scientists say that female beetles may behave this way, because they could consider their broods their last offspring. In other words, physical disadvantage may give them an expectation to never breed again. This makes them sacrifice valuable resources making sure their offspring survives. Passing their genes is probably their biggest concern at that point.

Beetles breed every year, but not every brood survives. Parental care increases the chances of survival, but beetles are often busy. Scientists expected female burying beetles with tiny weights to not be able to provide as much to their young, but they saw the opposite effect. Tom Ratz, one of the authors of the study, said: “We were surprised to find that handicapped insects were providing more care instead of less – this is the opposite of what we expected. It seems that among these careful parents, decisions about how much to care for current or future offspring are influenced by the likely benefit”.

It still sounds like a bizarre research to do – who would even think of experimenting with tiny weights on burying beetles? But it does provide a nice insight into the beetle world and gives a better perspective on survival instinct of these animals.


Source: University of Edinburgh

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