"Semi-fossorial . . . hmm, interesting", I thought to myself as my college mammalogy professor introduced the term in class one day.
This is the term, I soon learned, that's used to characterize species of mammals that spend significant parts of their lives underground - the likes of which include, for example, pocket gophers, moles and one of my favorite critters, the American badger.
While I regularly encounter signs of their presence across many a field and forest, I can think of just a handful of Minnesota mammals that I've observed less frequently than the badger. All I normally observe of this interesting mammal are the piles of dirt they leave behind where they've dug their burrows, hunted for pocket gophers, or cached duck eggs.
Nonetheless, the badgers I have encountered have all been memorable experiences. Once in North Dakota I stopped my truck to watch a female badger lead her two youngsters across the dirt road I was driving on. I got out and followed them a short distance through the ditch and to a fence. She hurried her kits along, occasionally glancing back at me.
Another time proved to be a little more exciting. While hiking upslope from a small northwestern Minnesota wetland one autumn evening, I found myself walking toward a badger burrow. Just before reaching the burrow's entrance, I was startled by a noise.
A badger suddenly appeared next to the burrow, scurried quickly to its entrance, and then turned and glared at me. We were only about 10 feet apart from each other, but neither of us made a move to leave or escape. I dare say that Mr. Badger was just as curious about me as I was him, but he made the first move and backed into this hole, the classic badger way - never turn your back on a potential foe.
Taxonomists once believed badgers were related to bears. Indeed, for a time their scientific Latin name was Ursus taxus, meaning "bear-badger." As we now know, badgers are members of the weasel family and no relation to bears. Today, the badger's scientific name is Taxidea taxus, meaning, oddly, "badger-like badger."
Other members of the weasel family include weasels, mink, otter, fisher, pine marten and the wolverine. Skunks, too, are related to the badger. Yet, of all members in the weasel family, the badger is perhaps the most unique; no other weasel spends as much time underground or possesses such physical characteristics.
First, the animal is perfectly adapted to its semi-fossorial lifestyle. Squat, low-slung, short limbs, and powerful, the badger is equipped with long claws and heavily muscled front legs, all of which provide the perfect body design for digging. Reaching lengths of up to three feet and weights from 15-25 pounds, badgers are indeed good sized creatures.
Even its skin is specially designed. A badger's hide is loosely fitted over its body so it can rotate inside of it. While digging burrows below the ground, badgers need to be flexible so they can turn or dig upside down. Having tight fitting skin would compromise a badger's maneuverability.
Not many creatures will challenge a badger. They have the reputation and distinction of being combative, fearless and exceedingly strong. Of these three attributes, the former is less deserving. Badgers, contrary to popular belief, are not the fighters many people believe them to be. As such, if cornered, the badger will not cower or retreat. In the event of a fight, badgers will face their aggressors head on. If an attack should occur, victory is typically claimed by the badger, not the other way around.
Even so, it's interesting to note that a breed of dog was developed to hunt badgers. The German word for badger is dachs. Hence, the dachshund, which shares many of the same anatomical features as badgers - short and powerful legs, long body, and loose skin - was used to hunt badgers. These fearless and combative dogs would enter the underground tunnels of badgers to get the animals to come out. It's hard to imagine such encounters in the confines of dark underground tunnels.
Despite the badger's relative abundance, one of the reasons we observe so few badgers is that badgers are typically most active at night. Couple this with the fact that much of their time is spent underground, seeing a badger, as I've already mentioned, is actually quite rare.
Rarity aside, identification of a badger is easy. Facial traits include striking white markings around the eyes and cheeks and a long, thin white streak from its nose, up its head, and down to its neck and shoulders. The remainder of its body is a grizzled; a kind of salt-and-pepper color.
In fact, badger hair is used for making premium shaving brushes. Badger hair is soft and highly absorbent, which is why badger fur makes the best shaving brushes. I'll have to ask Arlan, my barber, if he has a "badger brush" the next time I see him.
We are lucky that the American badger makes its living digging, hunting, and going about its business in relative secrecy here in Minnesota.
Leading mostly solitary lives under the cover of darkness or below the earth, these incredibly fascinating mammals are wonderful reasons to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.