The role of conflict in breeding systems: burying beetles as experimental organisms

TitleThe role of conflict in breeding systems: burying beetles as experimental organisms
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication1996
AuthorsTrumbo ST
JournalThe American Biological Teacher

The importance of conflict as an evolutionary force has been appreciated ever since Darwin. Although addressing conflict within a breeding system is typically difficult in the laboratory, burying beetles can be successfully employed as model organisms for such a task. Burying beetles can be used to explore intrasexual contests for possession of a critical resource, and intersexual conflicts over the composition of the breeding group, who should provide care, and who should defend the brood against infanticidal intruders. Burying beetles exhibit a number of additional features that can be brought to the attention of students. These beetles are strikingly outfitted in red and black which is thought to warn possible predators of the beetles' distastefulness. Burying beetles also carry large mutualistic mites which can easily be seen with the naked eye. These mites disembark quickly after a carcass is discovered and benefit their host by destroying carrion fly eggs. The mites, in turn, use the beetles as transportation between carrion resources. Although the beetles can be quite aggressive, same-sex individuals often will cooperate in nest-making when the task is difficult, such as when exploiting a large carcass. Cooperation is developed to the extent that individuals will feed each others' young. Burying beetles thus are a rich biological system for exploring many prominent issues in modern evolutionary biology.