badger burying cow
April 3, 2017

VIDEO: Watch this badger bury a whole cow by itself

While investigating the habits of scavengers in Utah’s Great Basin Desert, biologists witnessed an American badger do something no other researchers had recorded before: bury a complete calf carcass on its own.

While badgers and related species often bury food stores, this is the first recognized demonstration of a badger burying an animal bigger than itself. The finding indicates that badgers may be able to bury food of any size.

According to a paper published in the journal Western North American Naturalist, that capability means the animals play a crucial role in sequestering big animal carcasses, which could help cattle ranchers.

“We know a lot about badgers morphologically and genetically, but behaviorally there’s a lot of blank spaces that need to be filled,” study author Ethan Frehner, from the University of Utah, said in a news release. “This is a substantial behavior that wasn’t at all known about.”

The study team actually didn’t set out to explicitly document the behavior of American badgers. In an effort to learn more about the activities of desert scavengers, the biologists put down seven calf carcasses in Utah’s Grassy Mountains. Each dead calf was staked down and furnished with a camera trap to record what scavengers frequented which carcasses, with the objective of learning more around the ecology of scavengers in the Great Basin throughout the winter.

When the team came back after a week, they discovered that one was missing.

“When I first got there I was bummed because it’s hard to get these carcasses, to haul them out and set them up,” said co-author Evan Buechley, a graduate research at the University of Utah . “I thought ‘Oh, well we’ve lost one after a week.’”

At first, Buechley looked around the location, assuming that a coyote or mountain lion had taken the carcass away. However, after seeing no such thing, he came back and noticed the ground where the calf was had been was disturbed.

“Right on the spot I downloaded the photos,” he said. “We didn’t go out to study badgers specifically, but the badger declared itself to us.”

The camera trap images showed a badger excavating under the carcass, which slowly sunk into the growing hole. It took about five days for the badger to bury the carcass, which weighed around 50 pounds. The animal was then seen returning to its food cache several times over the course of several weeks.

Other images from the study showed another badger attempted the same feat, but was unsuccessful. For badgers, Buechley said, burying a carcass is “like putting it in the fridge” where it lasts longer and stays hidden from other scavengers.

The study team noted that this behavior could benefit ranchers, who tend to see badgers as pests.

“It’s not beneficial to have rotting carcasses out among your other cattle because of disease vectors,” Frehner said.

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Image credit: Evan Buechley