Industrious badger caught burying an entire cow | Science News for Students

Industrious badger caught burying an entire cow

Camera-trap documents the badger digging for days
Apr 20, 2017 — 12:00 pm EST
badger cow

Badgers are known to bury their meals. Usually it’s small fare, such as jackrabbits. But researchers have now found badgers caching something much bigger — dead calves (like the black and white one here).

COURTESY OF EVAN BUECHLEY

Scientists have caught an industrious badger doing something unexpected. It buried an entire calf.

The American badger is known to bury carrion (dead animals). The cool earth acts something like a natural refrigerator. It keeps food fresh and hides the stored food from potential thieves. But researchers had never spotted badgers burying anything bigger than a jackrabbit — at least, not until 2016. That’s when a young, dead cow went missing. It had been part of a study of scavengers in northwestern Utah.

That January, University of Utah researchers set out seven calves in the Great Basin Desert. Each calf, which had died of natural causes, weighed 18 to 27 kilograms (40 to 60 pounds). A camera trap monitored what happened to these bodies. (Camera traps take a picture or video only when something trips its motion sensor.) After a week, one carcass had disappeared. What made that surprising: All of the calves had been staked in place so that creatures couldn’t drag them off.

But perhaps that hadn’t been enough, the researchers thought. Maybe a coyote or mountain lion managed the feat. To find out, the researchers checked the camera.

Story continues below video.

Scientists put out a cow carcass and a camera trap to document what might eat the dead animal. Surprise! A badger spent several days burying the free meal.
IMAGES: COURTESY OF EVAN BUECHLEY; MUSIC: PODINGTON BEAR (CC BY-NC 3.0)

Its images showed a badger had found the calf on January 16. The next evening, it came back and spent four hours digging below and around the bovine. All that time, it stopped only five minutes to snack on its find.

The badger came back and dug the next afternoon and again the following morning. By that time, it had created a crater into which the calf tumbled. Still, the badger wasn’t done. It spent a couple more days backfilling the hole, to cover its find. It left itself only a small entrance.

For the next few weeks, the badger stayed underground with its meal. It ventured out only briefly. (No one knows where the badger went, but it might have been getting a drink, says Ethan Frehner. He’s the study’s lead author.)

By late February, the badger had moved out. It still came back from time to time. Herds of (living) cows kept coming through the site and these may have disrupted the badger’s dining habits. Although the badger checked on its cache several more times, it never re-entered the burrow after March 6.

This animal’s behavior was not unique. At another carcass site about three kilometers (two miles) away, another badger attempted to bury the calf staked there. But it only got the job partway done. This time, the anchoring stake did its job and prevented a full burial. Instead, the badger dug itself a hole nearby and spent several weeks there feasting on its find.

The calves were three to four times the badgers’ weight. That’s what made the burials so surprising. It was the first time scientists have documented American badgers burying carcasses so much bigger than themselves. The researchers reported their observations this past March 31 in Western North American Naturalist.

“All scavengers play an important ecological role” Frehner says. They help "to recycle nutrients and to remove carrion and disease vectors from the ecosystem." This study now raises new possibilities about the role of badgers. Those in Utah, at least, might be burying most dead animals they encounter. If they do it throughout their range, they could be responsible for “a significant amount of the scavenging and decomposition process which occurs throughout a large area in western North America,” Frehner says.

What’s more, that burial may not just benefit badgers. It could help ranchers, too. If badgers bury calves that have died of disease, the researchers point out, that could reduce the likelihood a disease will spread. It’s too soon to say whether that happens. However, says study co-author Evan Buechley, this idea “merits further study.”

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

basin     (in geology) A low-lying area, often below sea level. It collects water, which then deposits fine silt and other sediment on its bottom. Because it collects these materials, it’s sometimes referred to as a catchment or a drainage basin.

bovine     Having to do with cows.

calf     (plural: calves) The name of young animals in a range of mammalian species, from cattle to walruses.

camera trap     A still or video camera set to activate when motion is detected. The device is often used to monitor wildlife. It can also be used to record poachers.

carcass     The body of a dead animal.

carrion     The dead and rotting remains of an animal.

crater     A large, bowl-shaped cavity in the ground or on the surface of a planet or the moon. They are typically caused by an explosion or the impact of a meteorite or other celestial body. Such an impact is sometimes referred to as a cratering event.

decomposition     The process by which compounds in once-living things are broken down and returned to the environment; the process by which something decays or rots.

ecosystem     A group of interacting living organisms — including microorganisms, plants and animals — and their physical environment within a particular climate. Examples include tropical reefs, rainforests, alpine meadows and polar tundra.

naturalist     A biologist who works in the field (such as in forests, swamps or tundra) and studies the interconnections between wildlife that make up local ecosystems.

nutrient     A vitamin, mineral, fat, carbohydrate or protein that a plant, animal or other organism requires as part of its food in order to survive.

range     The full extent or distribution of something. For instance, a plant or animal’s range is the area over which it naturally exists.

recycle     To find new uses for something — or parts of something — that might otherwise be discarded, or treated as waste.

scavenger     A creature that feeds on dead or dying organic matter in its environment. Scavengers include vultures, raccoons, dung beetles and some types of flies.

sensor     A device that picks up information on physical or chemical conditions — such as temperature, barometric pressure, salinity, humidity, pH, light intensity or radiation — and stores or broadcasts that information. Scientists and engineers often rely on sensors to inform them of conditions that may change over time or that exist far from where a researcher can measure them directly.

vector     (in medicine) An organism that can spread disease, such as by transmitting a germ from one host to another.

NGSS: 

  • MS-LS2-2
  • MS-LS2-5
  • HS-LS2-4
  • HS-LS2-8

Citation

Journal:​ ​​E.H. Frehner et al. Subterranean caching of domestic cow (Bos taurus) carcasses by American badgers (Taxidea taxus) in the Great Basin Desert, Utah. Western North American Naturalist. Published online March 31, 2017.