On a sweltering day in May, Dr. Vanessa Lane is on her hands and knees sifting the sand around a rotting dead rat in a 5-gallon bucket. The Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College associate professor is continuing a project started by students years earlier on Alapaha River Wildlife Management Area.
Lane is searching for burying beetles. They “could be anywhere” in the inch-deep sand, she says. “They try to bury the carcass so they can have it to themselves.”
Dr. Vanessa Lane
Welcome to Lane’s wide world of wildlife. She does a little bit of everything, from teaching students wildlife ecology to leading talks to help people be less fearful of snakes. Her background is in bird biology, but she has eagerly branched into forestry, botany and entomology.
Her interest springs from the same source that prompted Lane, as a child turkey hunting with her dad, to wonder about a songbird neither could identify. That inquisitiveness and a love of the outdoors led the New York native to a conservation career in the South helping others understand and appreciate wildlife.
The insects are a hobby, Lane says with a grin. As with most hobbies, this one has a cost.
Lane has checked beetle traps at Alapaha WMA each month for the past three years. She brings the bait (dead Norway rats), sets the pit-fall traps (buried buckets covered in chicken wire) and documents what shows up.
Catches vary from rainbow scarab beetles to Nicrophorus pustulatus, a carrion beetle that feeds on snake eggs and is rare to find at Alapaha.
“I love it when I find pustulatus!” Lane laughs.
The status of Silphid beetles, a family that includes burying and carrion beetles, is largely a mystery in Georgia. Yet these creatures are critical. The American burying beetle is no longer found in the state. Federally, it is endangered. Researchers hope to discover why.
“We’d be up to our ears in dead things without ‘decomposers,'” Lane says. “These beetles are one of the largest.”
She plans to continue the beetle survey into 2022.
“It will be neat to see what happens after five years. Then I’ll have to get another pet project.”
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