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Wildlife biologist Evan Buechley, a University of Utah doctoral candidate, was baffled last year when he visited test sites in the West Desert where he had staked down calf carcasses two weeks before to observe scavenger behavior. One of the carcasses was gone, stake and all, leaving him wondering whether his research was derailed.
The mystery was solved when he downloaded the images from motion-triggered camera traps he had rigged around his study sites. A badger had buried the entire 50-pound carcass, a feat that had never before been seen among these animals.
"I noticed the ground was disturbed but it did not occur to me that [the calf] was buried. I figured coyotes unhooked it and dragged it off. We didn't set out to study the badgers specifically, but they stole the show," said Buechley, whose studies vultures and other avian scavengers.
His observations, published Friday in the peer-reviewed journal Western North American Naturalist, are the first time science has documented badgers caching an animal larger that itself. Previously, they had been observed burying rodents.
Time-lapse imagery shows over the course of two days the badger trenching around and under the calf as it sinks into the cavity. Then the badger covers it with dirt over next three days
Beuchley's team obtained stillborn calves from Utah dairies and staked them to the ground at seven observation sites near Grassy Mountain in Tooele County. Each were at least 1 kilometer from a road and 3 kilometers from one another.
Over the course of the three-month study window that began in January 2016, his team observed a second badger attempting to bury another carcass.
"This wasn't a one-off from one crazy badger. This behavior could be widespread," Buechley said.
U. senior Ethan Frehner was assigned the task of analyzing the photographic data and determining whether such caching behavior had been observed before. The team soon realized they were onto something.
"We couldn't find any documentation of a badger burying anything on this scale. Both of them built dens near the carcasses, so they were living on-site, presumably feeding on the carcass. They really were utilizing this resource," said Frehner.
The two students work in the lab of Çagan Sekercioglu, a renowned bird conservation biologist. Senior Tara Christensen assembled the time-lapse video of the badgers' labors.
Beuchley believes the study sheds new light on the behavior of badgers, short-legged carnivores that belong to the same family as otters and weasels. They are active mostly at night and live in dens, so it is hard to observe them in action. Recognized by the white stripe stretching from its face down its back, the American badger weighs between 20 to 24 pounds, less than half the weight of the calf carcasses used by the U. team.
Their cameras did capture badgers at other sites defending unburied carcasses from coyotes, so it appeared the burying strategy was a matter of choice.
"There is a trade-off," Buechley said. "If you can bury the carcass, you can dominate it, but it comes at a cost. It's a lot of work. It's two to five days of intense work, but then it has 50 pounds of fresh carrion it can eat over the next 40 days."
Internment had the added benefit of preserving the meat, similar to sticking it in a fridge.
Badgers annoy ranchers and farmers with their burrows and taste for chickens, and last year the U.S. Department of Agriculture killed 459, according to government data. But the new U. research suggests these animals may provide a valuable service that could cheer ranchers.
"If these badgers are fully burying carcasses, they could be removing potential disease vectors from the environment and it could reduce pestilent flies," Buechley said.