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Beetles That Eat Bodies

An Introduction to Beetles Found on Cadavers and Carrion

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In cases of suspicious death, forensic entomologists can use insect evidence to help investigators determine what happened to the victim. Carrion-feeding beetles provide an important ecological service by consuming dead organisms. Other beetles prey on the carrion-feeders.

Forensic entomologists collect beetles and other insects from the cadaver, and use known information about their life cycles and behaviors to determine facts like the time of death. This list includes 11 beetle families associated with vertebrate carcasses. These beetles may prove useful in criminal investigations.

1. Dermestid Beetles (Family Dermestidae)

Dermestids are also called skin or hide beetles. Their larvae have the unusual ability to digest keratin. Dermestid beetles arrive late in the decomposition process, after other organisms have devoured the soft tissues of the cadaver and all that remains is the dry skin and hair. Dermestid larvae are one of the most common insects collected by forensic entomologists from human corpses.

2. Bone Beetles (Family Cleridae)

Blacklegged ham beetle.
Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources - Forestry Archive, Bugwood.org
The family Cleridae is probably better known by its other common name, the checkered beetles. Most are predaceous on the larvae of other insects. A small subset of this group, however, prefers to feed on flesh. Entomologists sometimes refer to these Clerids as bone beetles or ham beetles. One species in particular, Necrobia rufipes or the red-legged ham beetle, can be a problem pest of stored meats. Bone beetles are sometimes collected from corpses in the later stages of decay.

3. Carrion Beetles (Family Silphidae)

Carrion beetle.
Photo: © Debbie Hadley, WILD Jersey
Carrion beetle larvae devour vertebrate carcasses. Adults feed on maggots, a clever way of eliminating their competition on the carrion. Some members of this family are also called burying beetles for their remarkable ability to interr small carcasses. It's fairly easy to find carrion beetles if you don't mind examining roadkill. Carrion beetles will colonize a corpse during any stage of decomposition.

4. Hide Beetles (Family Trogidae)

Hide beetle.
Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org
Hide or skin beetles from the family Trogidae can be easily missed, even when they've colonized a corpse or carcass. These small beetles are dark in color and roughly textured, a combination that acts as camouflage against the background of rotting or muddied flesh. Though only 50 or so species are found in North America, forensic entomologists have collected as many as 8 different species from a single carcass.

5. Scarab Beetles (Family Scarabaeidae)

The family Scarabaeidae is one of the largest beetle groups, with over 19,000 species worldwide and about 1,400 in North America. This group includes the dung beetles, also known as tumblebugs, which may be found on (or under) cadavers or carrion. Just a handful of species (14 or so) have been collected on vertebrate carcasses in the U.S.

6. Rove Beetles (Family Staphylinidae)

Rove beetle.
Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org
Rove beetles are associated with carcasses and cadavers, although they aren't carrion feeders. They feed on maggots and other insect larvae found on carrion. Rove beetles will colonize a carcass during any stage of decomposition, but they avoid very moist substrates. Staphylinidae is one of the largest beetle families in North America, with over 4,000 member species.

7. Sap Beetles (Family Nitidulidae)

Most sap beetles live near fermenting or souring plant fluids, so you might find them on rotting melons or where sap is flowing from a tree. A few sap beetles prefer carcasses, however, and these species may be valuable for forensic analysis. Surprisingly, though their sap beetle cousins prefer moist food sources, like decaying fruit, those that inhabit carcasses tend to do so in the later, drier stages of decomposition.

8. Clown Beetles (Family Histeridae)

Clown beetles, also known as hister beetles, inhabit carrion, dung, and other decaying materials. They rarely measure more than 10 mm in length. Clown beetles prefer to shelter in the soil under the carcass during the day. They emerge at night to prey on carrion-feeding insects, like maggots or dermestid beetle larvae.

9. False Clown Beetles (Family Sphaeritidae)

The false clown beetles lives in carrion and dung, as well as in decaying fungi. Their use in forensic investigations is limited, simply because the size and distribution of the family Sphaeritidae is extremely small. In North America, the group is represented by just a single species, Sphaerites politus, and this tiny beetle is found only in the Pacific Northwest up to Alaska.

10. Primitive Carrion Beetles (Family Agyrtidae)

The primitive carrion beetles hold less value to forensic science, if only due to their small numbers. Just eleven species inhabit North America, and ten of them live in the Pacific Coast states. These beetles were once treated as members of the family Silphidae, and in some texts may still be grouped as such. Primitive carrion beetles can be found on carrion or in decaying vegetative matter.

11. Earth-Boring Dung Beetles (Family Geotrupidae)

Though called dung beetles, Geotrupids also feed and live on carrion. Their larvae scavenge on manure, decaying fungi, and vertebrate carcasses. Earth-boring dung beetles vary in size, from just a few millimeters to about 2.5 centimeters long, and colonize carcasses during the active decay stage of decomposition.

Sources:

  • Borror and DeLong's Introduction to the Study of Insects, 7th Edition, by Charles A. Triplehorn and Norman F. Johnson
  • Forensic Entomology: The Utility of Arthropods in Legal Investigations, by Jason H. Byrd, James L. Castner
  • Forensic Entomology: An Introduction, by Dorothy Gennard
  • Current Concepts in Forensic Entomology, by Jens Amendt, M. Lee Goff
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