, Volume 29, Issue 1, pp 1–9 | Cite as

A pheromone that coordinates parental care is evolutionary conserved among burying beetles (Silphidae: Nicrophorus)

  • Katharina C. Engel
  • Wenbe Hwang
  • Sandra SteigerEmail author
Original Article


Pheromones regulating mating behavior are diverse in structure and typically show high species specificity. However, depending on their information content they can also be quite conserved across species. Here, we demonstrate that methyl geranate, an anti-aphrodisiac produced during brood care, is a conserved volatile organic compound within the genus Nicrophorus (burying beetles). Burying beetles are well known for their elaborate biparental care. They reproduce on small vertebrate carcasses and typically it is a pair of beetles, a male and a female, which cooperate in feeding and defending their young. During the intensive period of parental care, female Nicrophorus vespilloides have been shown to emit a volatile substance, methyl geranate, which acts as an anti-aphrodisiac and deters males from copulating. Methyl geranate is biosynthetically linked to juvenile hormone III, a hormone mediating a temporary infertility in this species. By investigating volatile emission of seven geographically and phylogenetically distinct burying beetle species, we provide evidence that methyl geranate is a conserved substance released by parenting adults throughout the genus. We, furthermore, show that there is high quantitative variation (1) between species, which can partly be explained by species differences in body size and (2) within species, which can be attributed to sex differences and individual brood size differences. Moreover, we demonstrate that a species of the genus Ptomascopus, which is closely related to Nicrophorus, but shows no elaborate post-hatching parental behavior, emits only trace amounts of methyl geranate during breeding. Our results, therefore, suggest that the synthesis of an anti-aphrodisiac was an important step in the evolution of concerted parental care in burying beetles. However, behavioral experiments are needed to further corroborate our hypothesis.


Anti-aphrodisiac Fertility signal Methyl geranate Parental care Juvenile hormone 



We are very grateful to Josef K. Müller for providing access to some Nicrophorus species and for valuable discussion. We thank Madlen Prang and Rainer Blum for helping to rear and maintain the beetles and Wolf Haberer, Johannes Stökl and Alexandra Capodeanu-Nägler for discussion and statistical advice. Furthermore, we thank Allen Moore and two anonymous reviewers for helpful and constructive comments on the manuscript. The research was supported by grants of the German Research Foundation (DFG) to S.S. (STE 1874/3-1 and STE 187/7-1).

Supplementary material

49_2018_271_MOESM1_ESM.docx (120 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 120 KB)


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Evolutionary Ecology and Conservation GenomicsUniversity of UlmUlmGermany
  2. 2.Department of Ecology and Environmental ResourcesNational University of TainanTainanTaiwan
  3. 3.Department of Evolutionary Animal EcologyUniversity of BayreuthBayreuthGermany

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