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Carrion Beetles Were the First Caring Parents

Flesh-eating beetles that lived 125 million years ago set the stage for modern parenting

A carrion beetle fossil from the Cretaceous period. (Photo: Di-Ying Huang, PNAS)
smithsonian.com

Good parents protect their babies from danger, feed them and teach them the ways of the world. This is exactly what carrion beetles—a group of insects that feast on decaying flesh—did some 125 million years ago. According to new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, not only were the beetles exceptional parents, but they also represent the oldest known example of active parenting on the planet. 

Finding traces of exceptional parenting in the fossil record is exceedingly difficult. In this case, the team managed it by studying fossils from China and Myanmar. The fossils showed that ancient beetles from the Early Cretaceous possessed special bodily structures close to those modern beetles possess that allow them to communicate with their young. Additionally, an amber fossil they uncovered caught the beetle parents in action, showing "elaborate biparental care and defense of small vertebrate carcasses for their larvae."

For all of their attentive care throughout the ages, however, parental love might not be enough. Several modern carrion beetles are endangered, the team reports. The American burying beetle, for example, is down to fewer than 1,000 individuals that live east of the Mississippi River. Even the most experienced parents in the world can't shield their babies from the ill-effects of human-driven habitat fragmentation, it seems.  

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