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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Nov 18;105(46):17890-5. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0805403105. Epub 2008 Nov 10.

Antimicrobial strategies in burying beetles breeding on carrion.

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Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Manchester, Michael Smith Building, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PT, United Kingdom.


Rich and ephemeral resources, such as carrion, are a source of intense interspecific competition among animal scavengers and microbial decomposers. Janzen [Janzen DH (1977) Am Nat 111:691-713] hypothesized that microbes should be selected to defend such resources by rendering them unpalatable or toxic to animals, and that animals should evolve counterstrategies of avoidance or detoxification. Despite the ubiquity of animal-microbe competition, there are few tests of Janzen's hypothesis, in particular with respect to antimicrobial strategies in animals. Here, we use the burying beetle Nicrophorus vespilloides, a species that obligately breeds on carcasses of small vertebrates, to investigate the role of parental care and avoidance as antimicrobial strategies. We manipulated competition between beetle larvae and microbes by providing beetles with either fresh carcasses or old ones that had reached advanced putrefaction. We found evidence for a strong detrimental effect of microbial competition on beetle reproductive success and larval growth. We also found that parental care can largely compensate for these negative effects, and that when given a choice between old and fresh carcasses, parents tended to choose to rear their broods on the latter. We conclude that parental care and carcass avoidance can function as antimicrobial strategies in this species. Our findings extend the range of behavioral counterstrategies used by animals during competition with microbes, and generalize the work of Janzen to include competition between microbes and insects that rely on carrion as an obligate resource for breeding and not just as an opportunistic meal.

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