Badgers are known to bury food items underground for later consumption, but new research has revealed just how deep they are willing to dig. Camera traps have caught a single badger burying an entire cow carcass, the first evidence of the scavenger stowing away an animal carcass larger than itself.
The research was led by undergraduate students from the University of Utah, who set out to study scavenger behavior in Utah's Great Basin Desert. Badgers were not part of the initial brief, with the team laying out seven calf carcasses and setting up camera traps to see how vultures and other avian scavengers responded.
They ventured out to inspect the carcasses after a week and found one to be missing. After noticing that the ground beneath where the carcass had been laid was disturbed, they immediately checked the images and were surprised to find that it wasn't a mountain lion or coyote behind the disappearance, but a much smaller culprit indeed.
The photos revealed a badger had dug around and beneath the 50-pound carcass (23 kg), burying it over the course of five days. This is the first documented evidence of a badger burying an animal larger than itself, a behavior the researchers say serves the purpose of both preserving the food and also hiding it away from other scavengers. As part of the same study, the researchers saw another badger attempt to bury a calf carcass, suggesting that the technique could be widespread and having a real impact on the landscape.
"There's not a lot of resources out there," says doctoral candidate Evan Buechley, who led the research. "A large dead ungulate can provide a ton of resources. So far on the carcasses we've put out, we've had turkey vultures, golden eagles, many ravens, bobcats, kit fox and coyote, so there's a lot of animals that could be using this resource, and the badger just monopolizes it."
Another impact of this newly discovered behavior could be limiting the spread of diseases. By burying masses of rotting flesh, the badgers may in fact be sealing away any diseases that could be contracted by livestock, and keeping away other larger predators at the same time. The researchers say the discovery highlights how little is known about scavenger behavior and its impacts on the surrounding wildlife.
"This adds more questions than it answers," Buechley says. "The nutrients in a carcass can be very important for many different organisms in an ecosystem. So if badgers are monopolizing them and they have the ability to bury perhaps any mammal carcass in North America and they're present across much of the continent, the potential ecological implications are profound."
You can see the badger go to work in the video below, while the full study can be read online.
Source: University of Utah