29 Jan, 2021 10:00 am

Africa: Beetle Parents Manipulate Information Broadcast From Bacteria in a Rotting Corpse

Analysis - Biologists are accustomed to hearing stories of microbes manipulating their host - a fungus that turns ants into suicidal zombies, a protozoan that makes rats seek out cat urine - but there are few examples of hosts turning the tables on their microbes.

A series of unpleasant odors I have studied burying beetles for over 30 years, at first to understand their parental behavior and physiology, but more recently their role in the community of carrion insects that recycle vital nutrients into the soil.The olfactory environment of burying beetles is one that disgusts many humans but has fascinated me because it is the context in which beetles find their food, advertise for a mate and compete with rivals.Working with Paula Philbrick, a microbiologist, I began with field trials to identify the chemicals that burying beetles respond to, so we could discover which ones they might want to manipulate.When we tried these compounds as supplements next to a fresh mouse carcass, however, free-flying burying beetles showed little interest.

Methyl thiocyanate turns out to be a great cue for burying beetles searching for a carcass.When we went back to the field and placed methyl thiocyanate next to carcasses, over 90% were discovered by burying beetles the first night, compared with a discovery rate of 0% to 20% for fresh carcasses without the chemical supplement.

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