In January 2016, a calf carcass went missing. Its owner, a conservation biologist by the name of Evan Buechley, left the corpse in the soil of Utah's Great Basin Desert to record scavengers. By scavengers, he suspected coyotes, perhaps even vultures. What he did not expect was the true culprit – a badger. Check out the video above.
That’s right. An American badger buried a bovine calf in what appears to be the first recorded footage of such an event. The study is published in the Western North American Naturalist.
"We know a lot about badgers morphologically and genetically, but behaviorally there's a lot of blank spaces that need to be filled," says first author Ethan Frehner of the University of Utah in a statement. "This is a substantial behavior that wasn't at all known about.”
The 50-pound calf was buried over a 5-day period, which researchers say is a caching method used by badgers to hide food from other scavengers and to make the animal meat last longer, sort of “like putting it in the fridge.” Such underground food stores keep the meat cooler than the sun-baked dirt above, slowing decomposition and providing safe storage for future consumption.
While scientists knew badgers cached rodents, squirrels, and even rabbits, they’ve never seen one conceal something quite so large – in this case, a creature roughly three to four times the weight of the badger itself. These stocky gravediggers are well-adapted to the task though, with powerful forelimbs, sharp claws, and a third eyelid to keep the dust of digging out.
So what happened to the rest of the cow after burial?
The badger constructed a den near its cache, where it feasted on its beef banquet for 11 continuous days. From then on, the badger only left the burrow from time to time, finally abandoning the site in early March – 52 days after burial.
To make matters even better, the team observed a second badger trying to bury another calf carcass. This suggests the behavior could be more widespread than the single incident caught on video. This also means American badgers could be influencing the nutrient cycling across North America to a greater degree than previously believed.
"This adds more questions than it answers," Buechley added. "The nutrients in a carcass can be very important for many different organisms in an ecosystem. So if badgers are monopolizing them and they have the ability to bury perhaps any mammal carcass in North America and they're present across much of the continent, the potential ecological implications are profound."