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QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS: Badgers

Content Updated: 10th February 2010

QUESTIONS: 

Why do badgers have striped faces?
Do foxes and badgers bury their dead?

Badger faceQ: Why do badgers have striped faces?

A:In a nutshell, a badger’s markings warn other carnivores (historically mainly wolves) that, unlike other medium-sized, fluffy animals living at the woodland edge, this one bites back” wrote Oxford University’s Chris Newman in the January 2005 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine. This situation, where possession of a conspicuous pattern (contrasting, highly coloured or both) serves to ward off potential predators is referred to as aposematism. Consequently, if one considers the mask of Meles meles to act in deterring predators from trying their luck, then it can be called an aposematic character.

With regard to colouration of mammals in general, Gloger’s Rule -- named after the German zoologist and ornithologist Constantin Gloger who proposed it in 1833 -- states that darker pigmentation should be found at the equator (where it’s warmer and/or more humid), getting progressively lighter as you move either north or south (where it’s cooler and/or drier). Additionally, Gloger’s Rule says that animals living in riparian (river) habitats possess darker pigmentation than those living in more open environments, which display lighter colours to provide camouflage and aid thermoregulation. Although most mammals seem to follow this rule, the presence of aposematic markings seems to rather fly-in-the-face of Gloger’s check-list – the patterns don’t appear to show any relation to distance from the equator, nor do they seem to change according to habitat type. The idea that the black-and-white patterning of some mammals may act as a warning sign was first proposed by Bristol-born zoologist Reginal Pocock in a paper to the Annals and Magazine of Natural History in 1911. In his article, Pocock suggests that animals possessing these characteristics typically also have strong bites or some sprayable chemical defence.

In a recent paper to the journal Oikos, Dr Newman, Christina Buesching (also from Oxford University) and Jerry Wolff (University of Memphis) discuss the function of facial masks in the “midguild” carnivores (i.e. those in the 10 to 20kg / 22 to 44lbs range). Newman and his colleagues looked at a number of possible hypotheses for the possession of facial markings (masks), including whether they are a cue to elicit grooming, directional cues to orient bites away from sensitive areas, or attractants to the opposite sex. The zoologists conclude that the most probable explanation for masks was aposematism, suggesting that:

“…in some species, the aggressive counter defence of midguild carnivores is sufficient in itself to select for aposematic colored face masks as warning coloration

So, because badgers don’t spray noisome substances at -- or have alternative methods of escaping from -- anything trying to snack on them, the striking mask pattern serves to warn a potential predator that they won’t go down without a fight! The presence of the mask in newborn cubs -- which have more predators (especially foxes) than adults -- adds further weight to this theory. Moreover, badgers typically feed on subterranean prey (i.e. earthworms over the vast majority of their range), which implies that there is little (if any) danger of their mask making them more noticeable to their quarry. To this effect, Newman and his colleagues argue that facial masks do not compromise the animals’ camouflage once the face is turned away; the mask can, therefore, be revealed as necessary. Indeed, the late, great badger guru Ernest Neal once described how a sow flattened herself to the ground by the entrance of her sett and partly covered her face with her fore paws upon hearing a dog barking nearby; Dr. Neal wrote that: “The camouflage was perfect”.

British badgerAnother hypothesis suggests that badgers might be able to use the mask pattern to tell each other apart; this is the 'Recognition Hypothesis'. In his book, Badgers, former Mammal Society president the late Michael Clark described how he was able to identify eight adults (5 sows, 3 boars) from his local sett in Hertfordshire (UK) based on facial differences; at least four (2 boars, 2 sows) were readily identifiable on the basis of their mask. Considering that badgers apparently have rather poor eyesight -- based largely on observations of badgers in the field -- the monochromatic mask pattern is probably very conspicuous (even under conditions of low light) and it seems reasonable that if a badger watcher is capable of using the mask to identify individuals, so are other badgers. Indeed, in their book -- also entitled Badgers -- Central Science Laboratory biologist Chris Cheeseman and Ernest Neal described how experiments with mirrors and stuffed badgers have shown that other badgers recognise the mask pattern at once. Similarly, Neal and Cheeseman reported the results of an experiment by David Humphries, from which he discovered that when he “held a badger’s mask in front of his face, the badgers appeared to accept him as one of them as he crawled about on the ground nearby, but down wind.

Not everyone agrees with the recognition hypothesis, however, at least not as a ‘driver’ for mask evolution (and aposematism in general), which -- according to Newman and his co-workers -- is a polyphyletic characteristic; they report that it has evolved independently in four Carnivore families and several times within each family. In their paper, they argue that the majority of masked midguild carnivores are asocial (i.e. solitary) and communicate primarily with scent – indeed, badgers are typically solitary (except where resources permit social cohesion) and their reliance on scent to mark their territory and conspecifics is well documented. Additionally, a study on badgers in Plymouth’s Radford Woods Oil Fuel Depot by marine biologist David Dixon, found that only one member of the clan could be readily identifiable by facial characteristics (at least using CCTV footage) and this was a missing ear, rather than a specific mask pattern. Instead, Dr. Dixon found that he could positively identify 95% of the badgers on the basis of their tail morphology, which remained largely unchanged during his two-year study.

Ultimately, I think it reasonable that the striking mask sported by Meles meles is, in the first instance, aposemetic: it lets predators know that this fantastic fur-ball is not to be messed with. It is not, however, unreasonable to consider that masks also have an intraspecific recognition function that works -- presumably in conjunction -- with olfactory cues (i.e. badgers recognise each other by face mask as well as by smell). Indeed, it should be remembered that badgers are almost certainly not visually motivated animals, instead it is scent that plays the pivotal role in helping them identify other badgers and the world in which they live. (Back to Menu)

Fox digging holeQ: Do Foxes and Badgers Bury their Dead?

Short Answer: Foxes are known to fight with each other and, in some cases the result can be fatal; there are also reports of foxes feeding on the dead bodies of other foxes. If we consider that these animals are also well known to cache surplus food, the most likely explanation for fox burials would seem to be the caching of a potential food resource for later consumption. Badgers, by contrast are not known to cache food, although they will also occasionally feed on carrion. There are a handful of reports from the literature telling of badgers dragging the carcasses of other badgers around, but these are rare and may reflect badgers moving the carcass to a more secluded spot in order to feed on it. Rarer still are accounts documenting multiple badgers co-operating in the burial of a conspecific (member of the same species) – so-called badger ‘funerals’. In most cases, it seems that badgers show little interest in conspecific carcasses and seem disinclined to bury dead clan members (even cubs). Reports of badger funerals include aberrant and agitated behaviour and, given the number of badgers watchers throughout Europe that have never documented such behaviour, it seems such behaviour is extremely rare.

The Details: The tendency to bury one’s dead is often invoked as a uniquely human trait; one of those features that separate us from other animals. The idea that animals may bury their dead, however, is not a recent one – Pliny considered that ants were the only animals, other than humans, that buried their dead with funeral rites. Indeed, we now know that some ant species will bury any dead ants they come across, whether they’re from their own colony or not, and that worker ants appear genetically programmed to remove dead and diseased animals from the nest. More recently, evidence has emerged that chimpanzees care for sick and dying troop members and, in the wild, have been observed to cover the bodies of dead troop members with leaves and branches. Similarly, in 2004, an elephant in Kenya was observed to cover the body of a mother and child it trampled to death with leaves before leaving the scene. Elephants are known to bury their dead, and remain with the bodies for some time afterwards, exhibiting behaviour very much akin to the human mourning.

The fox and the corpse
Red fox on lawnFoxes are often known for digging up corpses, be they of family pets buried in the back garden or, very occasionally, the bodies of humans (especially children) buried in paupers’ graves. There are, however, some interesting reports of foxes apparently dragging or burying the carcasses other foxes, and this has raised the question of whether they bury dead family members. Unfortunately, this is not a question that we can yet answer. All we do know is that foxes will kill and eat other foxes, especially when conditions are harsh, and one study of fox corpses by Bristol University found that some 5% had died as a result of combat with other foxes (the number being highest during winter, the breeding season). That said, fights to the death are rarely seen and in the few reports I have come across, the carcass was either left where it fell or its fate was unknown. In some cases, they are presumably dragged away.

I have received a report of a fox dragging the lifeless body of a conspecific across a field in the middle of the afternoon; unfortunately, the fate of this carcasses is unknown. One fox dragging another may not always be as macabre as it may first appear and in a 1980 paper about the impact of social factors on the reproduction of foxes, Oxford University biologist David Macdonald described an instance of apparent play, in which one fox proceeded to drag the body of another (live) individual along the ground, as if to make it stand up.

I have come across some examples of foxes burying the bodies of cubs or moving bodies of dead foxes; one in particular appeared in the January 2006 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine. A reader wrote in to describe how they were watching fox cubs playing in their garden when the vixen appeared carrying a dead cub in her mouth; the vixen put the cub down, dug a hole and buried it. Unfortunately, we don’t know the relationship of the cub to the vixen, but infanticide is relatively well known in foxes and it may not have been one of her own cubs. In an account e-mailed to me by a reader, a dead fox that they buried in their garden was subsequently dug up and removed (the reader suspects by a fox).

Owing to the rarity of observations of foxes killing, especially burying, each other it is difficult to provide an explanation. Foxes are, however, well known to cache surplus food and, given their habit of feeding on carrion (including other foxes), it seems probable that the reports of fox burials probably represent the animal caching a potential food source. Foxes will also often retrieve and re-locate caches, which may explain the second reader’s account. As the cubs grow and are weaned, adults will start burying food around the earth for the cubs to retrieve, this could conceivably include the dead body of a cub from a neighbouring group.

Badger dead on roadA badger’s funeral
In 1994, University of Sussex biologist Tim Roper published a short paper in the Journal of Zoology in which he provided details of a request for information he made to the Mammal Society. Prof. Roper received four accounts of badgers moving badger carcasses around: one involved a badger seen dragging a recently killed conspecific away from the edge of a road; the second described a sow taking the body of one of her cubs (recently killed by a dog) into the sett; the third told of a badger dragging the body of another across a field; and the fourth described how the observer found the body of a dead badger jammed in the entrance of an active sett. There are also some anecdotal reports from the literature that tell of skeletons having been found in walled up chambers of a sett, implying that if a badger dies underground, it may be moved to a disused part of the sett and ‘entombed’. Unfortunately, Roper didn’t receive any reports of badgers actually burying conspecifics. There are, however, reports in the literature of unusual behaviour of badgers in the presence of conspecific carcasses.

There are two accounts of note, although I have only been able to obtain a copy of one. This particularly interesting and detailed account was given by countryman Brian Vezey-Fitzgerald in his 1942 book, A Country Chronicle. Mr Vezey-Fitzgerald described events one June evening at his local badger sett, where a sow emerged just before 11pm and did something that I have never seen documented anywhere else:

“…suddenly, she raised her head to the heavens and uttered a cry – the first real sound I have ever heard from a badger. It was a weird cry, half whimper, half howl, shrill for so square a beast…”

The author described how, in the still of the night, the call was so eerie that the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. The sow moved rapidly to a nearby disused rabbit warren, where she proceeded to dig for just over an hour before she returned to the sett. The sow reappeared shortly afterwards, sniffing the air and moving in an agitated manner to the warren where she resumed digging – she made frequent trips back to the sett, every ten-or-so minutes. Mr Vezey-Fitzgerald then described how at “2.5” (I’m unsure whether this is 02:30, or whether a digit was omitted) an unknown male badger appeared at the sett and approached the female – what happened next was fascinating:

First the female, with a jerky, upward toss of the head and a swift downward movement until the nose touched the ground, uttered a thin, musical, whistling sound, rather as though the wind had been sharply expelled through the nostrils. The sound lasted – perhaps it was more of a squeak than a sound – just as long as it took the head to complete the motion described…”

Mr Vezey-Fitzgerald continued:

At the same time she moved forward with two tiny jerky steps, the hairs of her back ruffling very quickly. The moment she stopped and was standing still with nose almost touching the ground, the male, stationed exactly opposite her, went through the same performance. I was unable to distinguish any difference between the sounds emitted by male and female, while the movements performed were exactly the same in both cases. As each animal came to the end of the act the other commenced afresh, until, finally, their noses appeared to be touching.

Dead badger cubThe badgers then retreated to the sett, with the sow leading the boar nose-to-tail and after some time (it was apparently 03:15 at this point) the two emerged, the boar dragging (assisted by the sow) the body of a larger, old badger – the badgers were apparently so engrossed at this point that two loud sneezes from the author failed to elicit any response. The boar and sow dragged the corpse to the rabbit warren where they proceeded to bury the body. With the burial complete there was no further performance and the male vanished in the direction from which he had arrived. Mr Vezey-Fitzgerald examined the warren and noted that earth had been shovelled into the entrance and packed down by the bodies pressed against it; a day-or-so later, he dug out the earth and found the body of an old, white-muzzled, boar cramped awkwardly in the hole.

The events that Vezey-Fitzgerald meticulously documented raise more questions than they answer -- such as how the young boar had been summoned to help? Whether he was alerted by the sow’s cry? How the female knew to expect him? -- but I am inclined to agree with him that he was one of the privileged few to have watched a badger’s funeral. The second paper, by E. Hampton, is very difficult to track down (it appears to have been published in the Field Sports journal during 1947, although there is some confusion about this), but according to the summary Ernest Neal and Chris Cheeseman provide in their 1996 book Badgers, Hampton witnessed a similar event to that Vezey-Fitzgerald wrote of:

The common factors in both these accounts [Vezey-Fitzgerald and Hampton] were that a hole was dug, the body was dragged into it by more than one badger and earth was heaped on top.”

More recently, a website reader from North Wiltshire contacted me to describe how, in 2007, his granddaughter found a dead badger cub (photo above) laid carefully on a bed of dried grass in a hollow tree stump about 30m (100ft) from the very secluded sett she had been watching. The following day the body had gone, so it could not be studied, but the girl's initial thoughts had been that the cub had been laid to rest in the tree stump. The circumstances surrounding this (a very young cub on dry bedding) might suggest that the cub was born in the tree stump, where it subsequently died, rather than having been moved there. It is, however, impossible to say for certain.

European badger in frostTo bury or not to bury…
Why might animals opt to bury their dead? In humans, burial has deep psychological and, in those who are religious, spiritual implications. Some psychologists maintain that the removal of a body from sight aids the emotional healing process. Perhaps the most obvious reason for burial is to remove a body that would otherwise decompose on the ground, releasing unpleasant smells in the process. Indeed, Vezey-Fitzgerald described the old boar’s carcass, which after less than 48 hours underground was crawling with ants, as having an unpleasant smell. Two substances in particular, cadaverine and putrescine, are produced by microbes as an animal body decays and account for much of the odour. There are occasionally public health concerns raised over the decomposition of bodies but, unless the corpse has a transmissible disease, serious threat to public health is unlikely because the microorganiams involved in the putrefaction process aren’t pathogenic.

Foxes, in terms of their living arrangements at least, are seldom considered ‘clean’ animals and there are often scats and food remains at the earth. Caching, however, is a method of ensure not only that the food decays more slowly, but also that it is out of sight of potential competitors. Leaving carcasses lying around makes it more likely that they will attract other predators/competitors, so it is safer to bury them for subsequent retrieval. Foxes are also known to retrieve and re-bury caches periodically, which may account for instances where people have buried dead foxes in their garden only to have them dug up and removed the following night.

Badgers, will also eat carrion (including the meat of conspecifics), although they are not known to cache food. They do regularly perform sett maintenance, involving extending tunnels as well as replacing old, or airing existing, bedding. As with foxes, the odour of a decomposing clan member may draw in other predators, or attract biting insects that may cause them additional problems, which might inspire removal. That said, badgers often show no interest in removing the carcasses of conspecifics (even cubs) from the periphery of the sett and, despite the many hundreds of badger watchers around the country logging many thousands of hours at their local setts, descriptions of badger funerals are still exceptionally rare. Consequently, the behaviour described by Mr Vezey-Fitzgerald would appear aberrant, occurring only in exceptional circumstances. Neal and Cheeseman sum the situation up well in their book:

All that can be said at present about badger funerals is that if they do occur, they are very rare events. But badgers are remarkable creatures and it is well to keep an open mind about the possibility.” (Back to Menu)

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