Do foxes & badgers bury their dead?

Summary

Reports describing foxes burying the bodies of other foxes have sometimes been interpreted as one animal giving the other a burial. Foxes are known to fight with each other, and in some cases the result can be fatal; there are also reports of foxes feeding on the corpses of other foxes. If we consider that these animals are also known to cache surplus food, the most likely explanation for fox burials would seem to be the caching of a potential food resource for later consumption rather than a burial ritual.

Badgers, by contrast, are not known to cache food, although they will also occasionally feed on carrion. There are a handful of reports describing badgers dragging the carcasses of other badgers, but these are rare and may reflect badgers moving the carcass to a more secluded spot to feed on it. Rarer still are accounts documenting multiple badgers co-operating in the burial of a member of the same species - so-called badger “funerals”. Typically, badgers show little interest in the carcasses of other badgers and seem disinclined to bury dead clan members, even cubs; but these reports intimate that something highly social is occurring in these rare instances. In most cases it is probably as simple as clan members removing a body from the sett to prevent the spread of disease or the attraction of predators, but there are some very rare examples showing highly ritualised behaviour that has so far defied significant study.

The details

The ritual of burying one’s dead is often invoked as a uniquely human trait, one of those behaviours that separate us from other animals. The idea that other animals may also bury their dead is not, however, a recent one. Pliny held that ants were the only animals, other than humans, that buried their dead with funeral rites. We now know that some ant species will bury any dead ants they come across, whether they’re from their own colony or not, and that worker ants appear genetically programmed to remove dead and diseased animals from the nest.

A Red fox digging at its earth. Do foxes bury their dead kin, though? - Credit: Marc Baldwin

More recently, evidence has emerged that chimpanzees care for sick and dying troop members and, in the wild, have been observed to cover the bodies of dead troop members with leaves and branches. Similarly, in 2004, an elephant in Kenya was observed to cover the body of a mother and child it trampled to death with leaves before leaving the scene. Elephants are known to bury their dead and remain with the bodies for some time afterwards, exhibiting behaviour not dissimilar to human mourning. Indeed, it is the association of apparent grief or mourning that is considered to indicate a ‘burial’, as opposed to simply covering up or disposing of a body.

The fox and the corpse

Foxes are known for digging up corpses, be they of pets buried in the back garden or, very occasionally, the bodies of humans, especially children buried in paupers’ graves. There are, however, some interesting reports of foxes apparently dragging or burying the bodies of other foxes, and this has raised the question of whether they bury dead family members. This is not an area that has received any significant study, so all we have are witness statements and hypotheses.

We know that foxes will kill other foxes and on rare occasions they may even eat the bodies, although this tends to happen only when conditions are very harsh. Fights are relatively common among foxes, but fights to the death are rare. One study of fox corpses by Bristol University found that only about 5% had died as a result of combat with other foxes, most during winter in the midst of the breeding season. The few reports I have come across of fatal fights have suggested the carcass was either left where it fell or its fate was unknown. In some cases, the bodies are presumably dragged away. I have received only one report of a fox dragging the lifeless body of another across a field in the middle of the afternoon, but the witness didn’t see what happened to the carcass. At the present time, it is impossible to do more than speculate that a fox may drag the body of another away to consume it in seclusion, away from potential scavengers. Interestingly, however, one fox dragging another may not always be as macabre as it first appears and, in a 1980 paper about the impact of social factors on the reproduction of foxes, Oxford University biologist David Macdonald described an instance of apparent play, in which one fox proceeded to drag the body of another (perfectly healthy) individual along the ground, as if trying to make it stand up.

A fox carrying a dead cub in Yorkshire. - Credit: Katie Hostad

I have come across some examples of foxes burying the bodies of cubs or moving bodies of dead foxes, but again the accounts are so scarce as to make it impossible to draw any firm conclusions. One example appeared in the January 2006 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine. A reader wrote in to describe how they were watching fox cubs playing in their garden when the vixen appeared carrying a dead cub in her mouth; the vixen put the cub down, dug a hole and buried it. Unfortunately, we don’t know the relationship of the cub to the vixen, but infanticide is relatively well known in foxes (see QA) and it may not have been one of her own cubs. Similarly, zoo keeper and amateur photographer Katie Hostad photographed an adult fox carrying the body of a dead cub at Tophill Low Nature Reserve in Yorkshire during May 2014. Unfortunately, the fox disappeared with the cub and we do not know its fate. Finally, in an account e-mailed to me by a reader, a dead fox that they buried in their garden in July 2012 was subsequently dug up and removed, only to be replaced by the body of a cub. Cate O’Gorman told me:

This past week we have found the grisly remains of half a fox which was partially buried under our conifer tree. We dug up the body and buried it properly only to find that an animal went to great lengths to retrieve it, scattering body parts around the garden, and today we found that a fox cub has been partially buried in the same place.

The rarity of observations of foxes killing, and particularly burying, each other makes it difficult to offer an explanation. From the observations we have, the behaviour seems perhaps more akin to caching than anything funereal. Foxes are well known to cache surplus food and, given their habit of feeding on carrion, including other foxes, it seems probable that the reports of fox burials probably represent the animal caching a potential food source. Foxes will also retrieve and re-cache their own items and steal the caches made by other foxes, which may explain the Cate’s account. As the cubs grow and are weaned, adults will start burying food around the earth for the cubs to retrieve; this could conceivably include the dead body of a cub from a neighbouring group.

A badger’s funeral

In 1994, University of Sussex biologist Tim Roper published a short paper in the Journal of Zoology in which he summarised responses he received from a request for information on badgers seen dragging around other badgers that he made to the Mammal Society. Roper received four accounts of this behaviour: one involved a badger seen dragging a recently killed individual away from the edge of a road; the second described a sow taking the body of one of her cubs that had been recently killed by a dog into the sett; the third told of a badger dragging the body of another across a field; and the fourth described how the observer found the body of a dead badger jammed in the entrance of an active sett. There are also some anecdotal reports from the literature that tell of skeletons having been found in walled up chambers of a sett, implying that if a badger dies underground, it may be moved to a disused part of the sett and ‘entombed’. Unfortunately, Roper didn’t receive any reports of badgers actually burying others.

Ernest Neal and Chris Cheeseman, in their 1996 Poyser monograph Badgers, recounted a couple of events:

It is certainly established that badgers will drag the body of a dead one for some distance. Bronwen Doncaster related how she saw a badger laboriously drag another across a road one February night. In spite of interruptions by passing cars, the badger persisted and eventually dragged the body up the far bank, where it was found the next morning. There is also an account by Joseph O’Kelly (1969) of a badger, killed by a car, being covered in leaves on two successive nights, presumably by badgers. The leaves had to be dragged some distance from a copse in order to do this.”

A dead badger cub found near a West Country sett watched by wildlife filmmaker Peter McMurdie. It's not uncommon to find the bodies of very small cubs among piles of dried grass near badger setts during February. Some cubs invariably die early on and appear to be cleared out of the sett with the bedding. - Credit: Peter McMurdie

To-date, there are only three reports I'm aware of in the literature that, if taken at face value, suggest almost funereal behaviour of badgers in the presence of conspecific carcasses. The first is particularly interesting and detailed account given by Brian Vezey-Fitzgerald in his 1942 book, A Country Chronicle. Vezey-Fitzgerald described events one June evening at his local badger sett, where a sow emerged just before 11pm and did something that I have never seen documented anywhere else:

“…suddenly, she raised her head to the heavens and uttered a cry – the first real sound I have ever heard from a badger. It was a weird cry, half whimper, half howl, shrill for so square a beast…”

The author described how, in the still of the night, the call was so eerie that the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. The sow moved rapidly to a nearby disused rabbit warren, where she proceeded to dig for just over an hour before she returned to the sett. The sow reappeared shortly afterwards, sniffing the air and moving in an agitated manner to the warren where she resumed digging – she made frequent trips back to the sett, about every ten minutes. Vezey-Fitzgerald then described how at “2.5” (I’m unsure whether this is 02:30, or whether a digit was omitted) an unknown male badger appeared at the sett and approached the female – what happened next was fascinating:

First the female, with a jerky, upward toss of the head and a swift downward movement until the nose touched the ground, uttered a thin, musical, whistling sound, rather as though the wind had been sharply expelled through the nostrils. The sound lasted – perhaps it was more of a squeak than a sound – just as long as it took the head to complete the motion described…”

Vezey-Fitzgerald continued:

At the same time she moved forward with two tiny jerky steps, the hairs of her back ruffling very quickly. The moment she stopped and was standing still with nose almost touching the ground, the male, stationed exactly opposite her, went through the same performance. I was unable to distinguish any difference between the sounds emitted by male and female, while the movements performed were exactly the same in both cases. As each animal came to the end of the act the other commenced afresh, until, finally, their noses appeared to be touching.”

A dead badger cub found "laid carefully" on a bed of dried grass in a hollow tree stump at a secluded sett in Wiltshire. - Credit: Kerry Pearson

The badgers then retreated to the sett, with the sow leading the boar nose-to-tail, and after some time (it was apparently 03:15 at this point) the two emerged dragging the body of a larger, old badger – the badgers were apparently so engrossed at this point that two loud sneezes from the author failed to elicit any response. The boar and sow dragged the corpse to the rabbit warren where they proceeded to bury the body. With the burial complete there was no further performance and the male vanished in the direction from which he had arrived. Vezey-Fitzgerald examined the warren and noted that earth had been shovelled into the entrance and packed down by the bodies pressed against it; a day or so later, he dug out the earth and found the body of an old, white-muzzled, boar crammed awkwardly in the hole.

The events that Vezey-Fitzgerald meticulously documented raise more questions than they answer. How had the young boar been summoned to help? Was he alerted by the sow’s cry? How did the female know to expect him? Nonetheless, I am inclined to agree with him that he was one of the privileged few to have watched a badger’s funeral.

The second account was published by E. Hampton in a paper that I have not managed to track down to-date. It appears to have been published in the Field Sports journal during 1947, although there is some confusion about this. Nonetheless, although they don’t recount it, according to Neal and Cheeseman, Hampton witnessed a similar event to that Vezey-Fitzgerald wrote of, with the common factors in both accounts being that a hole was dug, the body was dragged into it by more than one badger and earth was scraped on top.

The third account is given by Fred Dean in The Countryman Animal Book, published in 1973. Dean described witnessing a sow push the dead body of a boar out of a sett and watch it roll down the hill until it came to rest between two moss-covered boulders. The sow then re-entered the sett and brought out some bedding, which was also allowed to roll down the hill. This was repeated five times before the sow walked down and scratched the pile over her dead partner, covering his body and the boulders. Dean wrote:

The final covering was of loose earth, sand and stones. The she walked round a few times, tidied the place up a bit, patted the mound here and there to give solidity to the covering, and wandered off into the night.”

Away from the literature, a website reader from north Wiltshire contacted me to describe how, in 2007, his granddaughter found a dead badger cub “laid carefully” on a bed of dried grass in a hollow tree stump about 30m (100ft) from the very secluded sett she had been watching. The following day the body had gone, so it could not be studied, but the watcher’s initial thoughts had been that the cub had been laid to rest in the tree stump. The circumstances surrounding this very young cub on dry bedding might suggest that the cub was born in the tree stump, where it subsequently died (or was stillborn), rather than having been moved there. It is, however, impossible to say for certain.

In most cases, badgers seem to be left where they die, even curled up in the tunnel entrance, and the removal of the body from the sett appears to be an uncommon behaviour. - Credit: ricardo (CC BY 2.0)

In the summer 2016, naturalist Sarah Fowler found a dead badger cub in a scrape about three metres (10ft) from the entrance of a sett she was watching in Lincolnshire. The body was covered over with twigs and leaves. Similarly, wildlife consultant Kate MacRae observed burial behaviour among badgers at a sett on her land in rural Worcestershire. Kate built a large sett on her land and fitted infrared cameras inside to monitor the badgers’ underground behaviour, during which she observed the death of a seemingly old badger sow in one of the chambers. Unfortunately, shortly after the sow died, a power failure caused the cameras to stop recording. When power was restored a week later, the badger’s body had been covered with earth in the chamber, presumably by other clan members.

To bury or not to bury…

Why might animals opt to bury their dead? In humans, burial has deep psychological and, in those who are religious, spiritual implications. Some psychologists maintain that the removal of a body from sight aids the emotional healing process. Certainly, the behaviour by Vezey-Ftizgerald can be interpreted as implication of grief or mourning by the sow, although data on the existence of psychological concepts such as grief in non-human animals is so scarce it is difficult to draw parallels. We do know, however, that both badgers and foxes are intelligent, social mammals so, although I won’t explore it further here, such angles should not be dismissed out of hand.

Invariably, the most obvious reason for burial is to remove a body that will release unpleasant odours and perhaps attract undesirable attention (from predators, “vermin” or insects) or promote the spread of disease as it decomposes. Indeed, Vezey-Fitzgerald described the old boar’s carcass as crawling with ants and having an unpleasant smell, despite having been buried for less than 48 hours. Similarly, both Sarah Fowler and Kate MacRae describe maggots and/or flies present on the carcasses they found. Burial also slows the rate of decomposition; hence it is used as a food storage strategy by several species, including foxes.

A badger around its main sett. - Credit: Pauline & Ian Wildlife Images

Technically, while there are occasionally public health concerns raised over the putrescent bodies, unless the corpse has a transmissible disease or attracts disease-carrying scavengers, decomposition doesn’t pose a serious threat because the microorganisms involved in the putrefaction process aren’t pathogenic. Nonetheless, the smell alone, caused largely by the cadaverine and putrescine produced by microbes as animal bodies decay, is enough to warrant burial, particularly if decomposition is happening in the confines of a den/sett. Being highly scent-oriented mammals, both foxes and badgers should have good reason to remove dead bodies from their homestead. So, why so few reports and why mostly among badgers?

I’m of the opinion reports of foxes carrying/burying other foxes are invariably cases of caching potential prey. Badgers will also eat carrion, including other badgers, but are not known to cache food, so it’s unlikely that reports of burial represent storage of leftovers. It’s also worth remembering that we observe very little of the lives of these two species, particularly badgers, which spend most their lives underground. Foxes use earths only for rearing cubs and, very occasionally, during inclement weather.  Spending most of their time above ground implies their likelihood of dying above ground is higher than it is for badgers and most foxes probably never encounter the need to remove a dead individual from their earth. We know fox cub mortality can be high, but presumably dead cubs are eaten either by the vixen or the other cubs. These behavioural differences might cause badgers to be more prone to burying, or at least removing, their dead than foxes.

So, caching probably explains reports of foxes burying other foxes, while “housekeeping” is probably the reason badgers bury theirs. That said, it may not be a universal badger behaviour. WildCRU biologist Christina Buesching told me that she’s never noticed the Wytham Woods badgers showing any interest in removing the carcasses of conspecifics, even cubs, from the periphery of the sett. Furthermore, despite the many hundreds of badger watchers around the country logging many thousands of hours at their local setts, descriptions of ‘badger funerals’ are still exceptionally rare. Perhaps part of the reason for this is alluded to by Kate MacRae’s observation that a dead clan member may be buried inside the sett. In the end, Neal and Cheeseman sum the situation up well in their book:

All that can be said at present about badger funerals is that if they do occur, they are very rare events. But badgers are remarkable creatures and it is well to keep an open mind about the possibility.”