An enterprising pair of badgers caught burying calf carcasses in the desert may help repair the animals’ reputation as pests.

University of Utah biologists were observing scavenger behaviour in Utah’s Great Basin Desert when they first witnessed an American badger do something no scientist had recorded before — completely bury an animal three to four times its size to feast on later.

But doctoral candidate Evan Buechley, lead researcher of a paper published Friday in the journal Western North American Naturalist, didn’t actually set out to make a discovery about badgers.

In an interview with CBC News, Buechley said he planned “to study what different scavengers are in the community and how they contribute to nutrient cycling and decomposition.”

He did this by staking the carcasses of seven calves to the ground and setting up cameras to capture what happened next. The stakes were used to prevent coyotes from carting the carcasses away and out of the view of the cameras.

But when Buechley returned two weeks later, one of the carcasses was missing.

“I was kind of disappointed because [setting them up] was a lot of work and then the carcass was gone so soon,” he said.

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University of Utah biologists captured images of badgers burying calves left out by the researchers. It’s the first known discovery of badgers burying animals this large, and could highlight an important way badgers are helpful for ranchers. (University of Utah)

Buechley searched the area but didn’t find any remnants of the calf that might be evidence of a scavenger feast.

“Then I went back to the site and noticed a big den hole, and so downloaded the photos right there at the site. I had my laptop with me, so I could look through the whole photo sequence,” he said.

The images show that, over the course of five days, the industrious little guy worked night and day to dig around and under the calf until it collapsed — stake and all — into a hole. The badger then covered the animal and the hole in dirt.

It turned out that a second badger had managed to do nearly the same thing to another calf carcass, but hadn’t quite managed to get the calf’s staked leg below ground.

Burying an animal to feast on later — a process biologists refer to as “caching” — effectively refrigerates it, preventing it from spoiling.

‘Like hitting the jackpot’

Undergraduate biology senior Ethan Frehner, lead author of the paper, said previous researchers had documented badgers burying small mammals such as jackrabbits and squirrels, but nothing as big as the calves.

“These carcasses are 20 to 30 kilograms, or three to four times the weight of a badger,” Frehner told CBC News.

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With at least a month’s worth of food secured, the cameras captured the badgers lying belly up in the sun and rolling around in the dirt. (University of Utah)

And about 100 times the size of a more typical badger find, the prairie dog, said Buechley. “It was like hitting the jackpot. This was at least a solid month’s worth of food.”

The cameras captured the badgers lying belly up in the sun and rolling around in the dirt.

“Not to anthropomorphize too much, but they seem pretty darn pleased with themselves,” he said.

Badgers’ bad rap

The findings could help to eventually change the perception of the humble animal, which has so far endured a reputation as a thorn in the side of ranchers.

“A large part of the concern is that the holes they dig, potentially trucks can drive into them and get stuck,” said Frehner. “Cattle have fallen into holes and potentially hurt their leg. This is the main cause of conflict between ranchers and badgers.”

Badgers have also been known to raid the odd chicken coop.

But this study opens the door to further investigation in how badgers might actually be more helpful to ranchers than previously thought, said Buechley.

For one thing, quickly burying a potentially diseased carcass could be helping to prevent the spread of disease to the herd, he said.

In addition, removing a big food source means larger predators such as wolves and coyotes are less likely to be drawn to the area, said Buechley.

He adds that, in a world where science is trending toward big data, discovering this new animal behaviour speaks to the value of doing good old-fashioned natural history “in your own backyard.”

“Just going out and spending time in the woods or in the deserts — there is still so many discoveries to be had.”

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