According to the calendar, it’s officially spring! Which means that it’s time to learn more about a spring animal.
When I Googled “classic spring animals,” I saw one that surprised me: the badger. I’ve never personally thought of a badger as a springtime animal! But, as I soon learned, this could be because I’m American. American badgers don’t hibernate for the winter, while European badgers do (sometimes).
Needless to say, this led me down a rabbit hole (or badger hole) of learning more about badgers and the difference between American and European badgers. Here’s what I’ve found.
American vs. European
Let’s start with some badger basics.
All badger species belong to the Mustelid family, the same family that includes otters, weasels, and wolverines. Unlike some other phylogenetic families of animals, Mustelidae is ‘polyphyletic.’ This means that instead of evolving from a recent common ancestor, mustelids share similar features based on convergent evolution. In other words, evolution happened upon the same traits in different regions of the world and evolutionary time. In the case of badgers, these animals all have squat bodies and live in underground burrows called ‘setts.’
There are 15 species of mustelid badgers within four subfamilies: Melinae (i.e., Eurasian badgers), Helictidinae (i.e., ferret-badgers), Mellivorinae (i.e., honey badgers), and Taxideinae (i.e., American badgers). We will focus today on the European badger (Meles meles) and the American badger (Taxidea taxus).
As you might expect, European and American badgers look very similar. They both have black and white stripes on their face, which have been hypothesized to warn other animals to not mess with them. Badgers also have round, barrel-shaped bodies and strong arms and legs for digging out their setts.
However, European badgers tend to grow bigger than American badgers, with a thicker white stripe in the middle of their head. American badgers are also known for looking more aggressive than European badgers.
There’s, of course, the obvious difference in the habitats of American and European badgers: one lives in Europe, and one lives in America (I’m assuming you can guess which one is which).
In addition to living on different continents, European and American badgers have slightly different habitat preferences – the American badger tends to live in plains and grasslands, while the European badger has a slight preference for woodlands.
Carnivore vs. Ominovre
Both American and European badgers are carnivores; however, American badgers tend to stick to a meat-eating diet. They’ll eat small animals like ground squirrels, voles, ground-nesting birds like burrowing owls, and lizards.
European badgers are much less wedded to meat. Their primary food source is earthworms – a single badger may eat up to 200 earthworms in a single night! They’ll also eat fruit, insects, and cereals. Still, European badgers are ferocious and can kill when they want to! In fact, European badgers have been blamed for the decline of hedgehogs in Britain.
Not Social vs. Social
European badgers are one of the few mustelids with some semblance of social behavior. They live in groups that can get up to around 20 individuals. Groups will grow larger when more food and resources are available and shrink when times are tough. In addition, European badgers don’t really interact with each other while living in groups – they still mainly keep to themselves. This low level of sociality (living together but with little interaction) could mean that European badgers represent an early stage of the evolution of sociality.
In contrast, American badgers are solitary and only meet up with each other when it’s time to mate. However, American badgers sometimes hang out with another animal: the coyote. There have been instances of American badgers and coyotes coming together to hunt. If you don’t get along with your species, there’s no harm in hanging out with a different one!
American badgers don’t hibernate; European badgers don’t either, in the strictest sense of the term. While they will sleep in their setts during the winter, European badgers aren’t in total hibernation; if the weather is mild, they may wake up to go forage outside.
The amount of time they spend in their sett also depends on where they live in Europe. Individuals living in warmer areas may not retreat to their sett at all since they may never lose access to their primary food source. On the other hand, European badgers living in colder areas may spend considerably more time in their sett, living off their fat reserves.
So are badgers emerging from their setts a sign of spring? It depends on where in the world you are.