Weasel Wonderings – Part One:  The Badger

I love weasels.  Once upon a time I had ferrets, which are amazing, curious, and slightly destructive animals that are full of whimsy and are thoroughly delightful.  I also used to live in a region that was full of many weasel species:  short- and long-tailed, mink, marten, fisher, otter (and, historically, wolverines) – I loved following their tracks and pondering their lives.  Northern Illinois has its own collection of weasels, some of which overlap with the ones I used to know (short- and long-tailed, mink, otter), and others that are entirely new (least and badger).  I eagerly anticpate learning more about these species.

Let’s start with the badger, which is high on my list of “gotta see” critters.  To begin with, it is just so beautiful!  The white, black and brown markings are simply stunning – who wouldn’t want to see something so gloriously patterned?!?  Next, it has an amazing build:  broad and short, large and powerful.  It lives underground and is a known to be ferocious hunter. 

During my six years living in southern Michigan, I heard of badgers being in the region, but finding one was nearly impossible.  Oh, there were rumors (“they are out by the prison”), but I never found anyone who knew exactly where I could see one.  Like the moose, it looked like it would remain out of reach, a mere pipe dream for me.  Then, during my first few weeks here in Illinois, a coworker and I were visiting Ferguson Forest Preserve and he pointed out some burrow openings saying “those are badger dens.”  Really?  How can you tell? (According to him, they have a D-shaped hole, which is highly diagnostic.)  Might we see one today? (No, we didn’t.)

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I actually saw my first badger this summer.  True, it was taking a permanent nap on the side of the road down near Sycamore, but you’d better believe I pulled over and started taking photos (see above)!  I really should’ve put it in my car and popped it into the freezer for later taxidermy, but I had the usual excuses:  the dog was with me, I had no plastic to protect the car, it was a very hot day and who knew how long it had been dead…

Still, it was a beautiful animal and I needed to know more.

In my research, I have found the usual common information about badgers:  they are primarily fossorial (live underground), can dig at tremendous speed (faster than a person with a shovel), are ferocious fighters (I just watched a video of a badger fighting a fox…it was impressive).  I read up on the history of badgers in Illinois (ridiculously common pre-European settlement; declined precipitously in the 1800s due to people digging up the prairie, their primary habitat; started to make a comeback in the early 1900s thanks to small farms with diverse crops, which provided fair habitat, especially for the badger’s primary food – rodents; dropped again in the 1950s thanks to modern agriculture with its monocultures, heavy equipment, and reliance on chemicals for fertilizer, pest and “weed” control; and today is not only considered to be “recovered,” but is also once more allowed to be trapped either for its fur or as a nuisance animal).  I also found some questionable “facts” (i.e., the lower jaw locks making it impossible to disassociate from the upper jaw – only one reference to this and not verified by any research, nor is it mentioned in my authoratative book about skulls). 

But then I came across something that has me puzzled, and like a mountain lion, my intellectual jaws have clamped down on this one detail and won’t let go:  badger hair is sought for use in shaving brushes because it is super absorbent – holding water apparently makes for lavish quantities of lather, which the person in search of a superior shave apparently wants. 

Wait a minute, says I.  How in the world would having super absorbent fur be of benefit to an animal that spends its life underground?  Everything about this animal is adapted to its fossorial life:  a thin transparent membrane over each eye (like a contact lens) to protect it from debris; small ears fronted with long stiff hairs to keep out flying dirt out; powerful neck and shoulders, and huge feet with long claws, all ideal for rapid digging through even the hardest “soils” (yes, there are records of badgers digging through asphalt and concrete); the squatty body and triangular head both designed for maneuvering in tunnels.  But nothing, NOTHING suggests any sort of evolutionary advantage to having water absorbent fur.  Badgers are even known to be good swimmers (that was a surprise), so here is a good reason not to have absorbent fur:  it would make one heavy in the water (potential drowning hazard) and it would reduce any insulative properties the fur would have (hypothermia).

I tracked down the names of a couple researchers who did work on badgers, but that was in the 1990s, and I cannot find any current contact information for them.  And any badger research I did find was only looking at ecosystem type stuff:  where they lived, what they ate, how the population was doing, etc.  No one (online) has an answer to my question.

So I toss my query out to the Universe:  if anyone knows why badgers would have absorbent fur, please let me know.   In the meantime, if you know of a badger den where I can sit down with my camera and observe their comings and goings, I would love to know that, too.