Some beetles go to great—and disgusting—lengths for their children. They scout for a dead mouse or bird, dig a hole and bury it, pluck its fur or feathers, roll its flesh into a ball and cover it in goop, all to feed their future offspring. Now scientists think that goo might do more than just slow decay. It also appears to hide the scent of the decomposing bounty and boosts another odor that repels competitors. As the AP explains, burying beetles and other things that feed on dead animals race each other to track down carcasses. The beetles use special antennae to detect the remains from afar, and the gut secretions they spread on a carcass are antibacterial and slow down decomposition. Stephen Trumbo, who studies animal behavior at the University of Connecticut and led the new research, wondered whether they also prevented rivals from picking up the scent.
To find out, Trumbo and his colleagues collected the gases wafting off dead hairless mice preserved by a kind of burying beetle that is found in forests across North America. The researchers then compared the gases to those from untouched carcasses. The beetle-prepped ones gave off much less of an onion-smelling compound that usually attracts burying beetles to fresh remains. They also discovered an increase in another gas from decay that's known to deter other insects that feed on dead animals. Next, they dropped off the dead mice in a Connecticut forest. As they report in the study published Thursday in the American Naturalist, they found the beetle's rivals were less likely to discover the ones covered in goop.
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