No evidence of a cleaning mutualism between burying beetles and their phoretic mites.26 Jun 2018
Burying beetles (Nicrophorus vespilloides) breed on small vertebrate carcasses, which they shave and smear with antimicrobial exudates. Producing antimicrobials imposes a fitness cost on burying beetles, which rises with the potency of the antimicrobial defence. Burying beetles also carry phoretic mites (Poecilochirus carabi complex), which breed alongside them on the carcass. Here we test the novel hypothesis that P. carabi mites assist burying beetles in clearing the carcass of bacteria as a side-effect of grazing on the carrion. We manipulated the bacterial environment on carcasses and measured the effect on the beetle in the presence and absence of mites. With next-generation sequencing, we investigated how mites influence the bacterial communities on the carcass. We show that mites: 1) cause beetles to reduce the antibacterial activity of their exudates but 2) there are no consistent fitness benefits of breeding alongside mites. We also find that mites increase bacterial diversity and richness on the carcass, but do not reduce bacterial abundance. The current evidence does not support a cleaning mutualism between burying beetles and P. carabi mites, but more work is needed to understand the functional significance and fitness consequences for the beetle of mite-associated changes to the bacterial community on the carcass.