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VIDEO: Badger Burying A Cow Surprises Scientists

Camera trap image of an American badger burying a calf carcass by itself in Utah's Grassy Mountains, January 2016.

This story starts with the mystery of a missing cow.

University of Utah researchers placed seven cow carcasses in Utah's Great Basin Desert, and set up cameras to learn about the behavior patterns of local scavengers.

But a week later, researcher Evan Buechley returned to one of the sites and found no sign of the cow.

"And my first reaction was to be fairly disappointed," he told The Two-Way. After all, it takes a lot of effort to drag a 50-plus-pound cow through the desert. Buechley explained that he thought maybe a coyote had taken the cow away.

Then, he noticed the ground was disturbed.

The tape told a far more surprising story. It shows a badger on a five-day-long digging spree, painstakingly excavating the ground under the cow and ultimately completely burying the animal about four times its weight.

As he watched the video while sitting in the desert, Buechley said he became "more and more amazed at this kind of impossible feat that this badger had achieved." You can watch a time lapse here:

It's the first time an American badger (Taxidea taxus) has been documented burying an animal larger than itself, the researchers said in a press release. Their findings were recently published in Western North American Naturalist.

What's more, when Buechley went to check the next carcass, he found that it had also been almost entirely buried by a different badger. The foot remained tied to a stake, but otherwise it was "mostly buried," he said.

This suggests that the burying behavior was not a "freak event of one badger just doing something really crazy," but actually may be something that badgers do regularly.

Badgers are known as excellent diggers and had been known to hide food underground. But the largest previously documented example was a rabbit, he adds.

The feat of engineering likely serves two goals — storing the meat and hiding it from competitors. Here's more from Buechley:

"So by burying it, it removed any competition from other birds or coyotes or any other animal that might scavenge on it. Which could be hugely important. If it was left out they could be losing tons of this awesome food resource daily to all kinds of other scavengers. So burying it helped with that.

"And then the other thing is by burying it, actually putting something underground, is kind of the equivalent of us putting something in the refrigerator in that it would slow the decomposition process of the carcass down, both from microbes because underground it would be cooler and darker and also potentially from insects, like flies laying maggots and stuff in it that would decompose the carcass."

The video shows the badger working day and night for five days. Then, it built a den connected to the carcass and did not surface often.

"So it worked overtime for five days like really, really intensely, and then it just had a two-week feeding fest," Buechley added.

The fact that this behavior was unknown until now suggests that we have much still to learn about scavengers, he said.

It also suggests that badgers, common in North America, could be helping to regulate disease by burying dead animals.

"If a diseased cow, for example, dies out on the range, and it's just sitting out in the sun and it's rotting and there's lots of flies in it, that could be a major disease vector," Buechley said. "But if that carcass within a couple of days of it dying is completely buried and effectively eliminated from that environment, where other cows are no longer going to come into contact with it, flies are not able to lay their maggots in it, etc., that could really be important for controlling infection and disease."

And if a badger can do this to a 50-pound carcass, Buechley says this implies that "they could potentially be burying just about any carrion that they could encounter in North America."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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