Go back

Austin Peay study works to unravel the begging behaviors of burying beetles

By: Colby Wilson February 19, 2024


Dr. Kyle Benowitz, left, works with Woulfe Miner, student worker and undergraduate researcher, and Allina Win, former undergraduate and full-time research technician, in Austin Peay’s Sundquist Science Complex.

The strangest thing is that Dr. Kyle Benowitz never really planned this as his career.

Austin Peay’s expert in insect behaviors wasn’t the kind of kid who had an insect collection or a bone-deep interest in science from a young age. Rather, he got a work-study job in a lab during his undergraduate days at the University of Virginia for a practical reason.

“It seemed more interesting to me than working in the library or the cafeteria,” he said.

Benowitz began doing the work, cleaning specimen boxes and looking after lizards, and realized he liked it – liked the lab setting, enjoyed working in the area, and liked working with good people. From that point – from getting involved with studying insect behavior through graduate and postgraduate work up to and including his current work studying the social behaviors of burying beetles – Benowitz has made it a point to keep science interesting, fun and accessible. At the same time, he mentors new generations of scientists to think critically about the world around them.


Benowitz works with Miner.

Benowitz’s start at Virginia came under the tutelage and direction of Dr. Edmund Brodie, a renowned evolutionary biologist at Virginia who instilled in Benowitz the importance of asking questions in science. The lab work is the lab work, in Benowitz’s view – if a person is committed to becoming a scientist, learning that is not just a requirement but a given. Getting to work with veteran scientists who encouraged their students to think critically left a profound mark on how Benowitz embarked on a teaching career.

At APSU, Benowitz puts his mentoring approach into practice. He oversees experiments that probe the intricate balance between parental effort and future reproduction in burying beetles and leads a team of students in this research, combining his capacity for curiosity with his acumen for mentorship.

Parenting strategies under study

These industrious insects offer fertile ground for studying parenting behavior and its evolutionary trade-offs. After finding a dead rodent or bird in nature, a female beetle will strip the carcass and roll it into a ball. She coats it in antimicrobial fluids and buries it underground. After laying eggs in the carcass, the dutiful mother stays to care for her wriggling larvae as they feed.

“She’ll actually chew up bits of flesh and regurgitate it back into their mouths,” Benowitz explained. This seemingly selfless parenting has clear implications for offspring survival and fitness.

Yet every ounce of energy the mother devotes to one brood saps her ability to breed again successfully; putting more effort into one places limits on how successful (defined roughly by how large and healthy) each subsequent brood can be. So when does high-investment parenting pay off evolutionarily, and when does a beetle mother optimize her fitness by doing less?


Anna Chess, graduate student, works with the larvae.

To unravel these complex trade-offs, Benowitz’s lab combines field biology, controlled experiments and genetic sequencing on a massive scale. His team collects hundreds of wild female beetles from Land Between the Lakes, allowing the insects to breed in the lab. They then systematically measure parenting behaviors and offspring success under defined conditions, which includes quantifying how often parents regurgitate over a couple of days and tracking key fitness indicators like the number and size of larvae.

After sequencing each beetle’s genome, Benowitz and his students use sophisticated statistics to pinpoint genetic variants associated with parenting prowess. By cross-fostering larvae, they can disentangle whether parenting success stems more from the mother's or the baby’s genes.

This interdisciplinary approach allows Benowitz to probe nuances in how evolution shapes behavior. The crunching of numbers consistently links back to his core curiosity about the natural world.

“I’m interested in the trade-offs, the costs and benefits,” he said. “When is it advantageous to give less effort?”

Benowitz aims to identify specific genetic factors and environmental conditions that drive the evolution of parenting behavior over generations. How is cooperation balanced with conflict in nature? The insights could resonate far beyond bugs. Many parallels likely exist between the trade-offs faced by beetles and humans when it comes to rearing offspring. Benowitz hopes his work provides lessons on how social bonds form and fray across the animal kingdom.

For Benowitz, this research is about filling gaps in our evolutionary knowledge, asking new questions and testing predictions about how complex behaviors such as parenting evolve. It represents steady progress toward a more predictive science of evolution, not revolution.

“What we’re really interested in is measuring and quantifying the costs and benefits of social behaviors like parenting,” Benowitz said. “If we can understand it in beetles, it gives us perspective on how it works everywhere.”

Though he didn’t set out to become an insect behavior expert, Benowitz now puts his imprint on the field by coaching students to formulate meaningful scientific questions. He aims to pass on the inspiration he gained from mentors.


Pillar Graphic - Full Color.png