European Badger Taxonomy

When Carl von Linné (more commonly known as Carl Linnaeus prior to his ennoblement in 1761) included the European badger in the 10th volume of his Systema naturae per regna tria naturae, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus differentiis, synonymis, locis (understandably shortened to System naturae by most), he placed it in the Ursidae family alongside the bears, calling it Ursus meles. Over the years, it became clear that the selection of genera proposed by Linnaeus was too restrictive to accurately reflect the emerging taxonomic relationships. Many species were subsequently reclassified into new families and genera and species split.

Badgers are mustelids (family Mustelidae), a family that contains about 66 living species. Eleven species of badger are known to science, including the infamous honey badger (Mellivora capensis). - Credit: Marc Baldwin

Today, all badgers are part of the Mustelidae (weasel) family, which is the largest and most diverse within the Carnivore order. Globally there are 66 extant mustelid species, divided into 25 genera and six subfamilies; representatives of the Mustelidae include otters, skunks, weasels, stoats and badgers. Worldwide, we currently recognize nine species of badger, divided into seven genera: Arctonyx, Suillotaxus, Mydaus, Melogale, Mellivora, Taxidea and Meles. The only badger found wild throughout the UK and Europe is Meles meles; moved from the Ursus genus following the creation of Meles by the French zoologist Mathurin Jacques Brisson in his 1762 Regnum animale in classes IX.

Owing to terrific geographical variation, many subspecies of Meles meles have been proposed, although early species revisions, such as that by Russian mammologist Nikolay Bobrinskii and his colleagues in 1944, suggest at least 10 of the 40-or-so proposed subspecies can be grouped into four main ones: Meles meles meles (widely distributed across Europe); Meles meles canescens (Transcaucasia), Meles meles leptorhynchus (south-east Russia and Siberia); and Meles meles amurensis (Manchuria).

The taxonomic assessment by Bobrinskii et al. is not universally accepted and, in their 1961 Checklist of Palaearctic and Indian Mammals, John Ellerman and Terence Morrison-Scott list 23 subspecies, while Gordon Corbet suggests 39 in his Mammals of the Palaearctic Region. At least part of the problem is that many of these proposed subspecies are based on rather minor differentiation in dental, skeletal and 'mask' characteristics and, in their 1996 book Badgers, Ernest Neal and Chris Cheeseman argue that these are perhaps better looked upon as “races” rather than true subspecies. Nonetheless, the variation seen amongst certain 'subspecies' is sufficient to make some authors argue that there may be as many as three species within the Meles genus and more genetic studies seem to support this.

Mitochondrial DNA (i.e. that inherited through the maternal line) data obtained by Naoko Kurose and his colleagues at Hokkaido University in Japan suggest that, at the very least, Eurasian badgers should be divided into European and Asian forms. The DNA evidence, coupled with recent studies by Russian zoologists Gennady Baryshnikov and Alexi Abramov on baculum morphometrics, fur colouration, skull morphology and dentition differentiation, highlight the need for an overhaul of the current thinking of Meles phylogeny.

In a 2003 paper to the Russian Journal of Theriology, a group of scientists from the Russian Academy of Science analysed cheek teeth variability in the Eurasian badger and were able to make some putative conclusions on badger taxonomy. The cheek teeth are the molars and premolars that mammals use for the mastication (i.e. grinding) of food. Cheek teeth tend to be highly complex in structure and, because they are typically so highly adapted to specific tasks, they are commonly used in phylogenetic studies. After studying the cheek teeth in 661 skulls sequestered from 11 museums from across the globe, Baryshnikov and his colleagues found two obvious geographic groups (east and west), which they argue are distinct species.

An illustration comparing the three species of badger in the Meles genus, once considered variants of the Eurasian badger, Meles meles. Top is the European badger (M. meles); Middle is the Asian badger (M. leucurus); and bottom is the Japanese badger (M. anakuma). - Credit: Christof Bobzin

If we take the results of Baryshnikov and his co-workers together with that of Abramov and Audrey Puzachenko, who have done much work on untangling badger phylogeny through variations in hard tissue morphology, it seems we can assign the western (European) group as Meles meles, the eastern (Japanese) group as Meles anakuma, a Far Eastern (Asian) group as Meles leucrus and also acknowledge the existence of a new subspecies (Meles meles milleri) from the far south-west of Norway. Additional studies on the skull and dental characteristics of the western group suggest that it can be further divided into two distinct forms (probably subspecies): the European badger ‘proper’ (presumably Meles meles meles) that inhabits most of Europe, and the Caucasus-Pamir badger (probably Meles meles canescens) found from Transcaucasia (the transitional region between Europe and Asia) to the Pamir-Alai Mountains in central Asia.

More recent work on the mitochondrial DNA of the mustelids by a multinational team of scientists largely supports the Russian studies, although their data suggest that the Eurasian badger can be divided into four distinct phylogenetic groups: Europe; Southwest Asia; North and East Asia; and Japan. The situation is further complicated by a 2019 study by a Russian-Japanese team of zoologists that found evidence of hybridization between the European (meles) and Asian (leucurus) species. Nonetheless, in a paper to Molecular Ecology in 2006, Josep Marmi at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelon (Spain) and colleagues write that the first three of the aforementioned groups has evolved separately since the end of the Pliocene (some 2.4 million years ago), while the Japanese badgers separated from the continental Asian ones during the middle Pleistocene (781,000 to 126,000 years ago). The ancestor of the Eurasian badger is thought to be Meles thorali, which had a Palaearctic distribution during the late Pliocene, about 3.6 to 1.8 million years ago.

Broadly speaking, the genetic data we have suggest that the Melinae subfamily requires some re-arranging, including the removal of the American badger (Taxidea taxus) into its own monotypic subfamily (Taxidiinae) and the assigning of the Arctonyx to the Meles genus, and there is still much in the way of nomenclatural dust that has yet to settle. While the recent work with mtDNA, cranial morphometrics and dentition has made considerable headway in clarifying the taxonomic interrelationships of badgers, there is still a need for more data, especially with a view to assessing the validity of Meles subspecific taxonomy.

For the purposes of this article, I consider Meles meles meles as the type species of European badger found throughout western Europe. Pending further evidence to the contrary, I follow other authors in placing the Eurasian badger within the Melinae (not to be confused with the Mellinae, which is a well-established subfamily ascribed to the hymenopteran digger wasps, Mellinus), a subfamily of the Mustelidae. Consequently, the basic taxonomic hierarchy for the European badger is as follows:

Kingdom: Animalia (animals)
Phylum: Chrodata (possess a basic 'backbone')
Class: Mammalia (mammals)
Order: Carnivora (meat-eaters)
Family: Mustelidae (weasel family)
Subfamily: Melinae (badgers)
Genus: Meles (Classic Latin meaning 'badger')
Species: meles

For more information on how animals and plants are classified see the Taxonomy section.