“An adult burying beetle is preparing a rat carcass for reproduction.” Image by Syuan-Jyun Sun (CC BY 3.0)

When the heat is turned up, beetles benefit by working together

Cooperation enables social burying beetles to outcompete their rivals at warmer temperatures.

The ability to live and work together in groups likely helped the earliest humans to leave their savannah homes in Africa and successfully settle around the globe. In doing so, humans shifted from being savannah specialists to generalists able to cope with a range of different environments. Cooperation is also believed to be a key to the global success of social insects like bees and ants. However, testing the idea that cooperation allows animals to become generalists that thrive in diverse environments — an idea referred to as the ‘social conquest hypothesis’ — is difficult.

Climate change has added a new sense of urgency to understanding how species adapt to changing environments, and some studies of humans and other animals have suggested that cooperation may increase or decrease in changing environments. Living in social groups has both benefits and drawbacks: it helps some animals to avoid being eaten by predators, but it also creates more competition for mates, food or other resources. As such, predicting how climate change will impact human and animal societies has also been difficult to test.

Syuan-Jyan Sun and co-workers have now tested the social conquest hypothesis by looking at how changes in environmental conditions affect the social behavior of the burying beetle. These insects find dead animals and then bury them to be eaten by their larvae. Burying beetles often fight each other to ensure that their own young get exclusive access to a food source. However, working together allows the beetles to bury a carcass before flies and other competitors discover it. Sun and co-workers compared how much the beetles cooperated at different elevations in the mountains of Taiwan. At each elevation the beetles faced different challenges: higher elevations were colder but had fewer flies, while lower elevations were warmer but had more flies.

Although burying beetles tended to work together more at warmer elevations, where the competition from flies was the most intense, beetles that cooperated with each other were able to successfully breed at all elevations. On the other hand, beetles that were less cooperative were best adapted to raising their young at more moderate elevations, where the climate and competition were less harsh. Similar results were seen when Sun and co-workers created non-cooperative and cooperative groups of beetles at different elevations and provided each group with a rat carcass. Further experiments that used heaters to artificially warm the carcasses directly proved that cooperation among beetles was indeed encouraged by higher temperatures.

Many studies have suggested that global warming might cause higher levels of conflict in human societies. But by studying how changes in an environment impact cooperation in burying beetles, Sun and co-workers provide new insights into how climate change may affect the future success of other social animals, including humans.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife digest is based: Climate-mediated cooperation promotes niche expansion in burying beetles” (May 9, 2014).

eLife is an open-access journal that publishes outstanding research in the life sciences and biomedicine.

The main text on this page was reused (with modification) under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 International License. The original “eLife digest” can be found in the linked eLife research paper.