Saturday, July 6, 2013

A Burying Beetle Burial

When I finished photographing the robin on Independence Day, I figured the body would have disappeared by the following morning — with scavenging raccoons and foxes visiting our backyard, corpses don't have the tendency to hang around for long. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found the robin was not only where I left it — but it was half-buried!

Robin, 10:48 AM
July 5, 10:48 AM

This was, of course, the work of burying beetles. I've read about them at length, and Bernd Heinrich dedicates an entire chapter to them in his book Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death. Despite spotting these beetles on numerous occasions — most notably, on the corpse of a red-bellied snake last summer — until now I'd never actually seen them in action, burying a body. I decided I'd periodically check throughout the day, to watch their progress. I was not disappointed!

Robin, 1:57 PM
July 5, 1:57 PM

Robin, 7:34 PM
July 5, 7:34 PM

Robin, 8:08 AM
July 6, 8:08 AM

By this morning, all that remained above ground was the tip of a wing and the tip of the tail. Everything else had been swallowed by the earth! This was incredible to observe, and I can only imagine the confusion of someone seeing this for the first time and not having a clue of what was happening. By all accounts, the body of the robin disappeared into the soil, and frankly, it's both pretty cool and pretty creepy.

I took a video of the scene at 10:47 AM on July 5: dappled sunlight moves over the half-buried robin, while flies continue to investigate the carcass:

Later in the day, at 7:39 PM, I filmed another set of videos. The earth around the robin was literally moving with the activity of the burying beetles! Soil heaved, and the bird itself seemed to shudder and sigh.

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