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Beetles Who Sleep Around Struggle with Insecurity

Mar 10, 2015 02:32 PM EDT
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getting it on
(Photo : Jena Johnson)

When you see a guy strutting around his campus bragging about how many women he's slept with, you're likely to think two things: either he's got a bit too much confidence, or - as is often the case - he's compensating for something else. Now, new research has found that it's not all that different for burying beetles.

A study recently published in the journal Evolution has revealed that male burying beetles, or sexton beetles (genus Nicrophorus), often have a lot more sex with a lot more partners when they are insecure about their social status.

That's believable enough, but how the heck did researchers prove this? They certainly couldn't put a bunch of beetles through a psych evaluation or ask their fraternity chapter who has the most belt notches.

According to a team of behaviorists and entomologists, there is actually a lot of easily observable social competition in the incredibly morbid life of the average burying beetle. True to thier name, these beetles are known to find the carcasses of recently deceased animals, mostly rodents, and will "walk" the dead back down into their burrow in a bizarre funeral procession. There, the carcass is embalmed and prepared, not for burial, but to be eaten by the larvae that a female will lay upon it.

Interestingly, finding a suitable carcass is how these strange bugs 'get the girl,' emitting a powerful pheromone that signals prospective mates that "it's about time for a first date" - one full of corpse dragging. How fun! (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Wayne National Forest)

These pheromones attract other males as well, and can lead to some stiff competition. As is expected, the larger, more dominant males usually win out - opting to mate with the most dominant females and hatch their children directly upon the carcass. But what about the losers? The team found that subordinate males and females will still follow the carcass, and will even lay their eggs near it. Loser males will then adapt a "satellite" tactic, sneaking in frequent copulation with many other subordinate females whereas the dominant couple only mates sparingly.

This helps ensure that they become a father. The team also simulated various circumstances in a lab, finding that when beetles who happen to copulate more find themselves part of a dominant pair, they will "act out" when the largest and will scale down their dominant behavior when smaller than rivals - a sure sign of insecurity.

"Such flexibility of behavior in response to a change in social context is a common, but relatively poorly understood, feature of organisms," researcher Mauricio Carter explained in a statement. "Plasticity of behavior is important because it allows organisms to respond rapidly to changes, increasing the persistence of populations in the face of environmental fluctuations. Our research increases our understanding of this important process that helps organisms adapt to changes in their environment."

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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