Oxford Research Sheds Light on the Secret Life of Badgers

Below is a press release about the Methods paper ‘An active-radio-frequency-identification system capable of identifying co-locations and social-structure: Validation with a wild free-ranging animal‘ taken from the University of Oxford.

© Peter Trimming

Detecting the movements and interactions of elusive, nocturnal wildlife is a perpetual challenge for wildlife biologists. But, with security tracking technology, more commonly used to protect museum artwork, new Oxford University research has revealed fresh insights into the social behaviour of badgers, with implications for disease transmission.

Previous studies have assumed that badgers are territorial and, at times, anti-social, living in tight-knit and exclusive family groups in dens termed ‘setts’. This led to the perception that badgers actively defend territorial borders and consequently rarely travel beyond their social-group boundaries.

This picture of the badger social system is so widely accepted that some badger culling and vaccination programmes rely on it – considering badger society as being divided up into discrete units, with badgers rarely venturing beyond their exclusive social-groups. But, the findings, newly published in Methods in Ecology and Evolution, have revealed that badgers travel more frequently beyond these notional boundaries than first thought, and appear to at least tolerate their neighbours.

Understanding the day-to-day movements of wild animals is critical to solving problems related to wildlife conservation and disease management. Rare, transient and therefore hard to detect movements may be particularly important if they underpin the social contact networks facilitating mating opportunities and disease transmission. These issues are particularly relevant to badgers, because of their controversial role in the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) to cattle in the UK and Ireland.

An interdisciplinary team of Zoologists (led by WildCRU’s Prof David Macdonald and Dr Stephen Ellwood) and Computer Scientists (led by Oxford’s Prof Niki Trigoni and Cambridge’s Prof Cecilia Mascolo) used active Radio Frequency Identification Technology (aRFID) to ‘tag’ and monitor the movements of badgers. The team discovered that the level of connectivity among badgers from different social-groups, was – at least in Wytham Woods (Oxfordshire), where the study was conducted – not as expected.

© Peter Trimming

Professor David Macdonald, Director of Oxford University’s WildCRU, said: ‘Getting inside a wild animal’s skin to really understand its behaviour used to rely on backwoodsman’s skills. Today, these are enhanced, but not replaced, by extraordinary technologies.

‘The private lives of badgers turn out to be almost as hard to understand as those of people – but after 25 years of trying we’re nudging closer to an understanding that is not only intriguing but also, for example in the context of bTB, useful.’

Previous animal-borne tracking technologies have been poorly adapted to detecting highly localised badger visits to setts and latrines, and often limited by how many individuals could be tracked simultaneously. But, by recording the presence of tagged badgers, relative to base-stations, the aRFID system was able to monitor badger comings and goings at the setts and latrines where group territories interface.

The findings support a growing understanding of badger social connectivity. In recent years clues have accumulated, suggesting that badgers must travel beyond territorial borders. For example, paternity studies, also conducted in Wytham, have shown that territorial borders are not necessarily barriers to reproductive interaction – up to 50 per cent of cubs are fathered by males from outside the mother’s social-group.

Dr Stephen Ellwood, lead author of the study said: ‘Tracking the way a Tweet goes viral is a staple of the modern world and says a lot about how interconnected people have become through our use of information technology. Tracking the opportunities for wild animals to connect requires a little more ingenuity. By fusing the know-how of Computer Scientists and Zoologists with technology normally used to track valuable assets we have developed a system capable of automatically logging when badgers visit specific locations over months or even years.

‘Visiting such locations provides the opportunity for connectivity, either directly through physical contact, or indirectly through lingering scent. Summarising the visits that located badgers together at the same place and time allowed us to build up patterns of inter-group connectivity beyond those previously understood.’

Moving forward, there is potential to extend the research beyond the activity of badgers, to other species that use focal resources either to forage, nest or burrow. The work could potentially inform our understanding of disease transmission across a wide variety of wildlife.

This work was sponsored by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

To find out more, read the Open Access Methods in Ecology and Evolution article ‘An active-radio-frequency-identification system capable of identifying co-locations and social-structure: Validation with a wild free-ranging animal’.

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