Why is this male carrion beetle “biting” one of the female’s antennae?

American carrion beetles (Necrophila americana) aggregating at sap flow on the trunk of an oak (Quercus sp.) tree.

American carrion beetles (Necrophila americana) aggregation at sap flow on trunk of oak (Quercus sp.) tree.

Earlier this spring I came upon an interesting aggregation of insects at a sap flow at the base of the trunk of a large oak (Quercus sp.) tree. Sap flows are famous for the diversity of insects that are attracted to them (e.g., see my previous post, Party on a pin oak), although the mix of species present can vary from sap flow to sap flow. In this case, the majority of insects present were American carrion beetles (Necrophila americana)¹ (order Coleoptera, family Silphidae), a species encountered much more often on animal carcasses (in fact, the genus name literally translates to “attracted to corpses“) but also occasionally attracted to sap flows (Evans 2014). This is not surprising to me, as I have seen adults regularly in the fermenting bait traps (Champlain & Knull 1932) that I have set out over the years (although I have been unable to find any reference to such attraction in the literature). I had never seen such an aggregation of these beetles before or even yet had the chance to photograph them (although I have photographed its Ceti Eel-like larva), so I paused to setup the camera and take a few photographs.

¹ Not to be confused with the federally endangered American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus).

Necrophila americana mating pair.

Necrophila americana mating pair.

Among the many single adults present was a mating pair, which I selected as my subjects. As I was photographing the pair, I noticed the male had a firm grasp of one of the female’s antennae within his mandibles. As I watched them through the lens, I saw the male suddenly release his hold of the female’s antenna, move backward on top of her, and begin using his own antennae to stroke her pronotum (sadly I was unable to snap a photograph at that time). As suddenly as he had released it, the male moved forward and grabbed hold of the female’s antenna once again. It seemed unlikely to me that this represented an act of aggression, but instead must be an important part of their courtship behavior. The female, for her part, did not seem to be bothered too much by the grasping and continued to slowly lumber about around the sap flow as the male went through his routine under my voyeuristic watch.

The male has a firm grasp of the female's antenna.

The male has a firm grasp of the female’s antenna.

Intrigued by this behavior, I searched for other photos of mating/coupled carrion beetles—easy to do considering the many pages of photographs of this species at BugGuide. While the great majority of those photos are of individual beetles, I found this photo and this one of coupled pairs, each also clearly showing the male firmly grasping one of the female’s antennae with his mandibles. Neither photo makes mention of the antennal grasping, but a little further searching did turn up this YouTube video of coupled American carrion beetles, again clearly showing the male grasping of the female’s antenna and even leading the videographer to comment, “Disturbingly, it even appears that this male is threatening to lop off the female’s left antenna if she refuses to mate!” Of course, retribution seems not to be a common behavior among insects, and in looking into this further I found a short note by Anderson (1989) in which the behavior is recorded not only for N. americana but also another silphid, Oiceoptoma noveboracense. Apparently mating actually occurred during the time the male had released his hold of the female’s antenna and was stroking her pronotum with his antennae. He further noted that the antennal grasping behavior continues until eggs and larvae are present at a carcass, at which time it is no longer observed. This suggests that the behavior represents an especially proactive form of “mate guarding” by which males actively ensure their paternity of the offspring of the particular female with which they were mating.

REFERENCES:

Anderson, R. S. 1989. Potential phylogenetic utility of mating behavior in some carrion beetles (Coleoptera: Silphidae: Silphinae). The Coleopterists Bulletin 43(1):18 [pdf].

Champlain, A. B. & J. N. Knull. 1932. Fermenting bait traps for trapping Elateridae and Cerambycidae (Coleop.). Entomological News 43(10):253–257.

Evans, A. V. 2014. Beetles of Eastern North America. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 560 pp. [Google Books].

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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6 Responses to Why is this male carrion beetle “biting” one of the female’s antennae?

  1. Patti says:

    Oh My Gosh! I saw these beetles( for the first time I might add) while on my frog and toad survey last week. They looked like they were on a pile of poo, but I guess it could have been a small dead thing in the middle of the trail. It certainly did smell bad. I do have an insect book but since there are about a gillizon types of beetles I didn’t even try to look them up. And, what do you know? Here they are on your blog! Thanks!

  2. ianmwright86 says:

    Very cool Ted! Thanks for digging into this and sharing. I’ve worked briefly with Nicrophorus and a quick google search leads me to believe they don’t do this behavior. Interesting. You mention the note about mate guarding and males clinging to antennae until the female deposits eggs – so what’s going on here? The female won’t lay eggs on a tree trunk right? Was there any carrion nearby? I assume it would be difficult to fly with a male on your back. Maybe the male was just really horny and couldn’t wait (which may actually doom their chances of successful reproduction)?

    • In his book Evans only says they are “rarely” found on sap flows, so maybe that is the case only if there is resource (i.e., a carcass) nearby. I didn’t notice/smell one, but even a small mouse would be utilized and could have gone unnoticed. Anderson mentions that the behavior does not appear to be ubiquitous in all silphid genera.

  3. Jon Quist says:

    Fascinating article, thanks for sharing!

  4. Karen Rexrode says:

    It reminds me of the apparent courtship ritual of the blister beetle where the male seems to stroke the backside of the female.

  5. George Sims says:

    Ted,
    I found my very first one attracted to a pile of baked beans that had been spilled at a Fourth of July picnic.

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