“This is a beautiful bug,” says Lou Perrotti, who has a tattoo of the American burying beetle on his forearm. It may not be the most likely description for an insect that buries and devours dead animals, but Perotti, conservation programs coordinator at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island, has a personal investment in the red-and-black bug.

Perrotti is one of the biologists who have been working for 15 years to reintroduce the 1-inch beetle into the region. Burial beetles are, as Perrotti says, “the undertakers of the animal world,” turning animal carcasses into mushy gray balls of flesh that act as food for their larvae until all that’s left is bones.

Burial beetles used to be found in 35 states but vanished from 90 percent of their range. They were listed as endangered in 1989. While populations still exist in Arkansas, Oklahoma and other Midwestern states, they had all but disappeared in the Northeast except for a small colony in Rhode Island until biologists successfully reintroduced them in Nantucket.

Though cuddly mammals and larger animals tend to get more attention when it comes to endangered status, scientists are increasingly focusing on creatures near the bottom of the food chain that play an important ecological role.

Perrotti, who lovingly calls the bugs “sweetie,” says the effort to reintroduce the insects is well worth it.

“People need to care about more species than just polar bears.”