A belly full of worms makes better recycling of wood beetles

A bad thing could be concerned with hundreds of feet being living inside of your stomach. But in the case of horned passalus beetles, nematode larvae being hosted may be an advantage for them and for the forests in the eastern US that live in them.

Beetles of that harbor Chondronema passali wood larvae eat more rotten than beetles without larvae, researchers report 1 May Biological Letters. Increased decomposition of forest nutrient cycling may accelerate, the authors recommend.

Earlier research found that about 70 to 90 percent of it Odontotaenius disjunctusknown as bess beetles or patent leather beetles, which have been occupied by hundreds if not thousands of nematodes, but they appear to have little adverse effect. The larvae remove the haemolimm of the beetles, the laying of blood, and thus help with the energy available in the beetles, an effect that can only be seen when the beetles are under short-term stress.

It may have been the increased need for energy that encourages infected beetles to increase the comfort of wood, says Andy Davis, an ecologist at the University of Georgia in Athens. Beetles can also have more opportunities to become more infected since they eat more wood, he says.

Davis and undergraduate student Cody Prouty caught 113 beetles from the woods near the campus and made wooden foil from each of them in a container. “On a quiet day, you could go into the lab and hear them chewing,” said Prouty.

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After three months, the team weighed the amount of wood each insect was eating, digesting, escaping and eating again after the bacteria and fungi allowed the pulp to break more. The researchers then distributed the beetles to identify which nematodes they had. Beetles with nematodes had processed an average of 0.77 grams of wood per day. This was about 15 per cent more than untapped beetles, an average of 0.67 grams per day. Beetles with nematodes were slightly larger, on average, which could increase their appetite anymore.

Davis says that he wants to measure the eating habits of the beetles before and after getting nematode larvae, and to find out how different larvae vary in the stomach. But the first scientists need to find out how and when the nematodes enter the beetles in the first place.

This study is part of “new research coming out now that promotes the idea that parasites are important in the ecosystem,” says Davis. “There are so many interconnected ways, and we're just going to study them.” T

Data showing the links between the beetles and nematodes is good, evolutionary ecologist Sheena Cotter says in e-mail. “This is really a very interesting system.” But she says that the relationship appears to be more mutual, in which both get some benefit, rather than harmful parasitic.

Nematodes for adults living in rotten logs could help the beetles by digging the wood in advance, says Cotter, University of Lincoln in England. And nematode larvae may be hitting the next loga. Although they are teeming with the larvae, “the beetles are not sick,” she says, “and they are probably offering many nematodes for their own sake.” T

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