1. A key component of parental care involves defending resources destined for offspring from a diverse array of potential interspecific competitors, such as social parasites, fungi and bacteria.
2. Just as with other aspects of parental care, such as offspring provisioning or brood defence, sexual conflict between parents may arise over how to share the costs of this form of care. There has been little previous work, however, to investigate how this particular burden might be shared.
3. Here, we describe a hitherto uncharacterized form of parental care in burying beetles Nicrophorus vespilloides, a species which prepares carrion for its young and faces competition from microbes for this resource. We found that parents defend the carcass with antibacterial anal exudates, and that the antibacterial activity of these exudates is only upregulated following the discovery of a corpse. At the same time, phenoloxidase activity in the anal exudates is downregulated, indicating parallels with the internal insect immune system.
4. In unmanipulated breeding pairs, females had higher antibacterial activity in their anal exudates than males, suggesting sex-specific roles in this aspect of parental care.
5. When we experimentally widowed males, we found that they increased levels of antibacterial activity in their anal exudates. Experimentally widowing females, however, led them to decrease levels of antibacterial activity in their anal exudates. Widowed beetles of each sex thus produced anal exudates of comparable antibacterial activity. We suggest that this flexible division of antibacterial activity may be coordinated by Juvenile Hormone.