Badgers can bury animals that are much bigger than them, scientists have discovered. They have captured on camera for the first time the carnivorous American badger burying a calf carcass all by itself.

Badgers and their relatives have long been known to cache food stores but little else is known about their ecology or their behaviours.

A team of scientists from the University of Utah had been working in Utah's Great Basin Desert to study scavenger behaviour, when the camera traps they had set up spotted the unique scene.

They have now published the results of their observations in Western North American Naturalist.

Ethan Frehner, the paper's first author explained: "They [badgers] are an enigmatic species. A substantial amount of their lifetime is spent either underground or they have a lot of nocturnal behaviour, so it's hard to directly observe that."

In recent years, camera traps have greatly facilitated scientific observations of animal behaviours – here, they were instrumental in uncovering a previously undocumented badger behaviour.

What the camera traps show

On the camera trap records, scientists can see a badger working to bury a roughly 50-lbs carcass over the course of five days – that's three to four times the badger's own weight. The badger appears to dig around and beneath the carcass, creating a cavity where it can be well hidden.

The time-lapse video that the scientists have put together is thought to be the first direct evidence of a badger burying an animal larger than itself. Previously, they had only documented badgers burying small animals such as rabbits.

Badgers are thought to do this to hide their food from potential scavengers and keep it in an environment where it will last longer. These new findings indicate that badgers may have no limit to the size of the animals they can cache and the amount of food they can store.

badger burial
This badger behaviour may be useful to cattle ranchers in the US. Courtesy of Evan Buechley.

More research now needs to be done to understand how widespread the practice of burying really large animals is.

The scientists have already identified the same behaviour in another badger in the area. While they were not able to record it in such details, it is a good indicator that burying animals that weigh more than them might not be so uncommon among badgers.