A recent viral video from the Peninsula Open Space Trust of two unlikely animal companions sharing a wildlife underpass near San Jose brought up a little known fact: we have badgers in the Bay Area. They’re a rare sight — so rare, in fact, that camera trapper Zach Tuthill hadn’t seen a badger in the above photograph’s area for seven-plus years. This picture, taken in 2018, helped Tuthill locate an entire family that had moved in; with six cameras, Tuthill has managed to get a good idea of the wildlife inhabiting the area.
Part of the reason badger sightings are rare, even on camera traps, could be their underground lifestyle. They’re fossorial — diggers and burrowers — with dens (also known as sets) that can be almost 1,000 feet in length, large enough to accommodate 15 animals. The largest sets can have 40 entrances. That’s quite a few holes in the ground.
A set will have several different chambers, either used for adults to sleep in or to raise young, lined with grasses and other plants. The sets are beneficial for other species as well, with small animals moving into unoccupied ones. Even salamanders, burrowing owls, and the rare red-legged frog have been found in badger burrows, while the dirt that’s kicked up becomes a favored place for certain species of birds to forage and flourish.
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In many ways, it’s almost like a human house, if it were entirely underground. Because sets can be so large, badgers prefer to make them in large areas of open space. These are increasingly precious throughout the Bay, where human housing takes the place of badger housing. Preserving those open areas is critically important if we want to keep our seldom-seen neighbors around.
To cope with a life underground and filled with dirt, badgers have a third eyelid. It shuts out the dust, keeping their eyes debris-free. Unfortunately, they still can’t see very well. Coupled with slow movement speed, it makes them vulnerable when crossing roads — hence the importance of the underpass in that viral video. In California, badgers have a special designated status as a species of special concern, which is supposed to help offer them additional degrees of protection and consideration from biologists and land managers.
Evidence suggests that badger habitat and population continues to decrease. It can be exhausting when every glimpse into the lives of animals also seemingly requires a call to action, but I believe that by showing the rich biodiversity of the Bay Area, we can impart a sense of what we stand to lose. For the sake of these underground homes, we have to support preserving open space. Otherwise, how will we get more viral videos?