COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — When she saw the plump orange-and-black insect crawling on the rotting rat corpse, Andrea Malek didn't know whether to cry, laugh or scream in celebration.
After a double take, she did all three.
It was a discovery 45 years in the making. Sitting at the bottom of her trap fashioned from a 5-gallon plastic bucket was an American burying beetle, a federally endangered species that hadn't been found living in Ohio since 1974 — until now, that is.
And Malek didn't find just one. She found three of the beetles at The Wilds last month: two females and a male, which she marked with tiny bee tags.
"It's like having your best dream come true," said Malek, a 25-year-old wildlife ecology technician from Zanesville. "It's just amazing that all of our hard work is finally paying off."
The American burying beetles are important because they turn decay into compost and help keep ecosystems in balance and clean, she said.
In an attempt to re-establish the species, conservationists at The Wilds have bred and released hand-reared beetles for nine straight summers in portions of the 10,000-acre conservation park in Muskingum County, which is operated by the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. Last year, they released 472 of the insects, their largest number to date.
The process includes carving out nests for the beetles with golf-hole diggers, filling them with carcasses and placing a paired male and female beetle inside every hole. The insects are marked for identification.
In the wild, the beetles typically forage for a dead animal themselves — usually a bird or rodent. They drag it underground, strip off its fur or feathers and coat it with gooey secretions. The female beetle lays eggs in nearby dirt chambers and days later as many as 30 ravished larvae emerge. The entire family feeds off and lives in the cozy, mummified slime ball until the baby beetles fly off a couple of months later.
Malek, who started as an Ohio University student intern, has overseen the program for the past two years.
During that time, she has spent several hours every day checking more than 20 bucket traps filled with ripe, smelly bait that are topped with funnels to prevent the insects from escaping. She captured plenty of American burying beetles each summer. But as the seasons passed, she never found them again the following spring.
Some questioned if the hand-reared bugs, which were successfully reproducing, were capable of surviving Ohio's frigid winters. They're also not active if the spring weather is too cold. The inch-and-a-half-long insects have a lifespan of about a year.
Their ability to travel long distances — sometimes several miles in one night when searching for food or a mate — also made finding them a challenge.
But after some trial and error, Malek finally found the elusive insects, offspring of ones released this past summer, in the western part of The Wilds property. They were near Zion Ridge Road, about a mile from their release site and 70 miles southeast of Columbus.
The beetles released this past summer had been captured from a wild population in Nebraska and were bigger than usual, which may have led to the breakthrough, said Stephen Spear, director of wildlife ecology at The Wilds.
Specimens previously came from Arkansas, a warmer climate.
The Cincinnati Zoo, which also participates in the conservation program, also captured its first overwintered beetle in May at the Fernald Nature Preserve in southwestern Ohio, perhaps supporting that theory.
"This is a huge milestone to celebrate, but we're always thinking about the next thing," Spear said. "It's a long-term goal, but now there's no reason to think we can't get them re-established all over the state of Ohio someday."
The American burying beetle was once the most-common burying beetle in the country, found in 35 states in the eastern United States and parts of Canada. It was the first insect to be placed on the federal endangered species list, and that distinction has stuck since 1989.
Today, the insect remains in only a handful of states.
It's believed the species is dwindling because of a lack of appropriately sized food sources, especially following the extinction of the once-abundant passenger pigeon in 1914. The beetle can't bury animals that are too large. Animals that are too small, meanwhile, don't provide enough food.
It's also possible that light pollution, more competition from larger scavengers, increases in pesticide use and sweeping land-use changes might have hurt the beetle, experts say.
Now that they've finally found beetles that survived the winter, conservationists at The Wilds hope to start tracking generations of offspring.
They'll maintain a database containing DNA of every American burying beetle they release and capture, to confirm the population is continuing to reproduce and remaining genetically diverse, Spear said.
Their work continued June 6 with this year's first release.
The ultimate goal of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Wildlife is to establish a burying beetle population that can sustain itself without human intervention, said Erin Hazelton, a wildlife administrator with the division.
She said that's a step closer to its removal from the endangered species list.
"Our mission is to make sure that we're looking out for all wildlife, not just the cute and fuzzy ones," Hazelton said.