Can You Dig It? If You're a Badger, You Can

By: Jesslyn Shields  | 

Badger
A European badger (Meles meles) foraging in a meadow, probably looking for a place to dig a new sett, or den. Arterra/Getty Images

Unlike many animals that have lived around humans for millennia, badgers don't have much of a reputation. Aside from being the mascot of Hufflepuff House in J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series, and with the noted exception of the honey badger, few of the animals bearing the name of "badger" leave us with very much of an idea of what these animals are all about.

This might be because the word "badger" doesn't really mean anything, from an evolutionary standpoint. The badgers of the world represent four separate evolutionary lineages within the weasel family, Mustelidae, which also includes ferrets, otters and wolverines. One lineage of badger — represented by the two species of stink badgers — isn't even a weasel at all, but belongs to the skunk family, Mephitidae.

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Great Diversity, But Not Much in Common

"Badgers are found nearly worldwide, living in diverse habitats and with diverse diets," says Emily Latch, a wildlife geneticist in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "One of their most unique features is their shared adaptations for fossoriality — living underground. They have reduced eyes and ears, enlarged forelimbs and claws for digging, and bodies that are tapered at both ends."

The American badger (Taxidea taxus) is a good example of these adaptations. American badgers are mostly nocturnal, mid-sized carnivores that feed primarily on rodents, but also things that hang out on the ground like snakes and ground-dwelling birds. While they are found primarily in grasslands and other treeless areas, they can hang out in forests, too. Unlike raccoons, coyotes and white-tailed deer, they're not thrilled by the presence of humans and the roads and houses and Verizon stores that come with us everywhere we go, but since there's not much of an option these days, they grudgingly tolerate suburban neighborhoods where there's plenty of soil to dig around in.

"American badgers have few predators," says Latch. "Eagles and large carnivores such as wolves and bears might occasionally kill a small badger. But Mustelids in general have a reputation for 'punching above their weight.' As for badgers, some species such as the American badger or the Honey badger have a well-deserved reputation for being aggressive."

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Badger Mansions

One thing that unites badgers from all over the world — from North America to Africa to Southeast Asia — is their habit of digging and living in dens called "setts," which consist of an interconnected network of tunnels and chambers. Badgers live together in groups, the size of the group depending on the size of the sett. One European badger (Meles meles) sett in Southern England is thought to cover a territory of over a square mile (2,000 square meters), with up to 100 entrances; it provides shelter for not only dozens of badgers, but rabbits and foxes, too. Badgers sleep and give birth in specified chambers of the tunnel system and keep these burrows immaculately clean — they don't bring food in or use the bathroom inside. Setts can also house many generations of badgers — some have been found to be over 100 years old.

Badger
The entrance to a European badger (Meles meles) den, called a "sett."
ARTERRA/Getty Images

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Badger Archaeologists

Badgers are such prolific and proficient diggers, they sometimes excavate ancient artifacts and human remains in such a haphazard manner that it would drive an archaeologist up the tallest tree in despair. For instance, in 2016, a European badger uncovered a 2,000-year-old burial urn near the site of Stonehenge which contained cremated remains, an archer's wrist guard, a copper chisel and a bronze saw.

Similarly, in Alberta, Canada in 2016, a farmer found a human skull sticking out of an American badger hole in his cow pasture. It turns out the skull belonged to an indigenous girl from the early 1800s — a time before Europeans arrived in the area. Also found in the badger's discard pile were many beads, brass buttons and rings that would have been very valuable at the time, suggesting that this was a person of stature who was probably en route between places.

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American Badgers Hunt With Coyotes

One of the most heartwarming and mystifying aspects of the American badger's social life is that they often prefer to hunt alongside coyotes — even passing up a hunting buddy of the same species to form a short-term hunting alliance with one of these canines.

Scientists believe that this unlikely partnership is convenient to both species because their hunting techniques are so compatible. The badger can dig into a rodent's den and flush it out, only to be chased and caught by the speedy coyote. Conversely, a coyote can chase the prey underground only to be cornered by the ruthless badger.

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