An American badger has been captured burying the carcass of a cow – a previously unrecorded behaviour – in an astonishing display of the creature’s digging prowess.
The images were taken by camera traps set up by researchers who had left seven calf carcasses in Utah’s Grassy Mountains in January last year in an attempt to study which scavengers descended on the animals.
“I was expecting we were going to get a lot of vultures and maybe some eagles and coyotes and different things,” said Evan Buechley, a doctoral candidate at the University of Utah and co-author of the study. “But then this badger stole the show.”
Buechley’s suspicions were aroused when, upon checking on the carcasses, he found one had completely disappeared.
“The ground was disturbed but I didn’t expect it to be buried,” said Buechley. “I was pretty bummed because it was a tonne of work to drive these carcasses out into the desert.”
But examination of the pictures from the camera trap revealed an extraordinary turn of events. A badger completely buries the calf, with the animal setting to work almost immediately after its initial discovery of the carcass. Despite being a nocturnal creature, the images show it digging both during the day and at night.
From the time-lapse video created from the images, the badger can be seen digging around the calf until the dead bovine sinks into the dirt as the tunnels dug beneath it collapse. The badger then covers its cache with soil, before taking what appears to be a well-earned rest atop the mound, looking directly at the camera. “I was really shocked and amazed, and really excited,” said Buechley.
When Buechley checked on the other carcasses, he found another calf had been almost completely buried, with only a leg sticking out where the carcass had been secured to the ground with a stake. But the images in the camera trap showed that calf had been buried by a different badger. “The second one was really informative because it meant it wasn’t a one-off, freak behaviour,” said Buechley.
According to the researchers the discovery, published in the journal the Western North American Naturalist, is the first time badgers have been reported burying a carcass several times bigger than themselves. While the calves weigh in around 23kg, female badgers weigh on average 6.3 kg and males 8.6 kg.
The discovery, they add, suggests that badgers might be responsible for disposing of more animal carrion than previously thought – potentially having knock-on effects on the food supply of other animals. “The ground serves as a way to keep the carcass cool, so it inhibits decomposition, so [the badgers] can feed upon it and totally monopolise that really important food source,” said Buechley.
Indeed, after completely burying the calf, the badger built a den next to it. “For about two weeks it hung out underground,” said Buechley. “Down there it has got this awesome food source.”