A female burying beetle looks after her young. Photo credit: Tom Houslay (CC BY 4.0)

The perils of parenting

Burying beetles who are low-quality parents pass on this trait to their offspring, and can drive their partners to an early death.

The burying beetle is an unusual insect in that both the father and the mother take care of their young larvae. They do this by providing food in the form of a small dead animal, such as a mouse, from which they diligently remove any fur or feathers, and by defending both the food and the larvae from rivals. These actions reduce the fitness of the parents, which can be estimated by measuring by how long they survive after caring for their brood. They also increase the health of the larvae, as measured by how large the larvae are when they move away from the carcass to pupate.

Rebecca Kilner and colleagues wanted to know how the parenting received by larvae affects their behaviour when they grow up and have their own offspring. Larvae were given varying amounts of care, ranging from none at all to five days (which is the typical length of the larval stage for burying beetles). Larvae that received little or no care grew up to become low-quality parents, whereas those that received lots of care became high-quality parents. A low-quality parent is, by definition, a parent that becomes less fit as a result of rearing offspring; a high-quality parent providing the same amount of care would not suffer such a large reduction in its fitness.

Each of the female beetles from this first experiment was then mated with a high-quality male and together they took care of their offspring. Kilner and colleagues observed that the fathers lived longer when they were paired with high-quality mothers than they did when they were paired with lower quality mothers. This happened because the lower quality mothers effectively exploited the fathers, forcing them to do more of the parenting. Although the males gained by raising healthy larvae, they paid a price by dying at a younger age.

Results from these insect experiments are not directly linked to human behaviour, but they might tell us why animals of other species are generally so careful to choose a mate that matches them in quality. In this way, they can avoid being exploited when the pair work together to raise young. In future, Kilner and co-workers will investigate how beetles adjust their parenting effort in response to the effort put in by their partner: can they estimate parental quality directly, or do they simply observe how much care the other partner is providing?

To find out more

Listen to Rebecca Kilner discuss beetle parenting in episode 24 of the eLife podcast.
Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife digest is based: “Parental effects alter the adaptive value of an adult behavioural trait”(September 22, 2015)

To read more from eLife on burying beetles, check out…

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