Dead Flesh And Male Pheromones Is Key To The Heart Of Female Beetles

By Max Eddy on August 15, 2012 1:23 PM EDT

Dermestes maculatus
It takes both rotting flesh and male pheromones to catch the attention of this beetle. (Photo: Flickr / Udo Schmidt)

A recent study looking at Dermestes maculatus or "hide beetles" has found that it takes both rotting flesh and male pheromones together to get the attention of female beetles. Carrion beetles in the audience, please take note.

Dermestes maculatus have been used in museums to clean flesh from dead animals for over a hundred years, and more recently have been used as forensic tool to help determine time of death. By measuring the number of beetles and developmental stage of larvae on a corpse, forensic scientists can get a pretty good idea when someone -- or something -- died.

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Scientists already know when males show up on a corpse, and can use this as a rough starting point to calculate the time of death. Knowing when females receptive to mating arrive at the body, however, could give a much better indication of when to start the clock.

Previous research had already determined that newly hatched males arrive at bodies about nine days after death, attracted by the putrefying smell of benzyl butyrate. This new research, led by Christian von Hoermann, sought to determine when newly hatched females ready for mating -- "virgin" females, as they are referred to in the research -- arrived at a corpse and what drew them.

The research was published yesterday in the journal Frontiers in Zoology.

Von Hoermann assumed that neither male beetle pheromones nor decaying flesh alone would be enough to attract female beetles. Instead, he used a mixture of decaying piglets and male sex pheromones compared to a control sample of solvent. Experimenting with different combinations, von Hoermann's team found that it does indeed take both the sweet smell of decaying flesh and beetle pheromones to lure the ladies. On their own, the team found that these two attractors were simply not enough to get females to notice.

This conclusion is important, as it seems to indicate that male beetles tend to be the first to arrive at a corpse, with females -- and thus larvae -- later. In their study, the researchers write that females likely prefer this mixture because it "optimise their reproductive possibilities." The males provide the genetic material and the dead animal provides food and shelter for the female's offspring.

While the research is certainly useful for scientists and forensic analysts alike, it's unlikely to make a splash in the human cologne market.

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