Cannibal Beetle Mothers Eat Nagging, Whiny, Greedy Babies

Elaine Radford - Author

Aug. 24 2013, Updated 9:52 a.m. ET

Burying beetle mothers have a simple way to deal with sibling rivalry. The cannibal moms simply eat the pushy, nagging, whiny babies that try to demand more than their fair share.

That’s the surprising findings of a new study on burying beetle family life just published by University of Edinburgh, Scotland researchers in Behavioural Psychology.

Cannibalism probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when most mothers are looking for a way to cope with demanding babies. But, according to a description of their family life in, the sexton or burying beetles seem to have a unique approach.

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Females of the colorful species known to science as Nicrophorus vespilloides lay their eggs on the bodies of dead animals. And they don’t just lay and run, like many insect species, including butterflies.

Instead, the beetle mothers hang around to help the baby beetles get a start on life. Moms dine on the rotting body used as a nest, digest it, then regurgitate some of the no-doubt-delicious meal to feed to their youngsters.

Yum. Yum.

But what if there isn’t enough dead, rotten, chewed-up, and regurgitated food to go around? How does the mother beetle decide who gets fed?

And what happens to babies who keep begging mommy for way more food than they need?

According to Nature World News, a mother burying beetle is nobody to fool around with. She’ll make a cold-hearted decision based on who is more likely to survive anyway — and that means that older, stronger baby beetles will get fed before younger, smaller ones.

And there’s more.

Researcher Dr. Clare Andrews explained: “Our study shows that if you’re a baby beetle it doesn’t pay to pester your mother for food unless you’re really hungry.”

If a baby pesters the could-be cannibal mother beetle too much for extra food, she’ll simply eat the annoying youngster. Ouch.


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