Photograph Courtesy Peninsula Open Space Trust
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A coyote waits for a badger to follow it down a wildlife underpass in the southern Santa Cruz Mountains.

Photograph Courtesy Peninsula Open Space Trust

Why this coyote and badger 'friendship' has excited scientists

A viral video taken under a California highway captured a playful intimacy between two predators that's rarely seen by humans.

Like a page out of a child’s storybook, a coyote and a badger trot side by side, seemingly the best of friends.

The remote camera video clip was captured recently under a busy highway in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s gone viral on Twitter, showing just how much people love to cheer on unusual animal bonds. (Read how coyotes have spread to 49 states—and show no signs of stopping.)

Scientists have known for a long time that coyotes and badgers in the American West hunt cooperatively for small mammals; the partnership is even featured in Native American mythology. But until now, the association between these two predators, each at the top of their respective food chains, has always been thought to be purely transactional. What’s so striking about the video, says independent behavioral ecologist Jennifer Campbell-Smith, is that it’s not “these cold, robotic animals taking advantage of each other—they’re instead at ease and friendly.”

Case in point: The coyote wags its tail and bows down playfully, signaling that it’s inviting the badger to follow it into the tunnel. The badger’s body language is relaxed; the animal even lifts its tail to waddle more quickly to keep pace with the coyote. “The badger was showing happy behavior—for a badger,” she laughs. The animals are known for being notoriously grumpy.

What’s more, the affability between the animals shows that they certainly know each other as individuals. “I wouldn’t scientifically want to use the term friends, but these are two wild animals that clearly understand their partnership.”

The video, taken by the nonprofit group Peninsula Open Space Trust, is an important discovery for scientists: It shows both the first example of coyote-badger cooperation ever taken in the San Francisco Bay Area and possibly the first video showing two species sharing a culvert—a tunnel that allows water to flow under a road and wildlife to bypass highways. But there’s another crucial takeaway here, she adds: Helping the public to relate to the wildlife in their own backyards.

Such clips help “people see that, oh wait, just like I can have a friendship with a dog, they can, too,” she says. “It’s not just a human thing; all animals can collaborate.”

Win-win situation

Coyotes and badgers occasionally form short-term alliances to hunt ground-dwelling creatures, particularly in areas with relatively high densities of predators and prey, such as open expanses of Wyoming, Montana, and Oregon. The most common structure is one coyote and one badger, though occasionally two coyotes will join up (two badgers have not been observed, however), notes Campbell-Smith. (Learn how coyotes are hacking life in the city.)

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It's not known how the relationship begins, or whether it’s learned behavior from the species’ parents, she says. But there’s no question the association is mutually beneficial.

That’s because the carnivores complement each other’s hunting styles. If a coyote spends time near a badger, there’s a good chance the badger is going to scare up a squirrel, which the coyote can then run and catch. If the badger hangs around a coyote, there’s a likelihood the coyote will drive the prey underground, which then gives the badger—a superior digger—a meal.

Research has backed up the efficacy of this mutualism: Coyotes and badgers that hunt together are both more effective at getting food. For instance, observations in Wyoming have revealed that coyotes that team up with badgers save energy and likely time by not having to search, chase, and stalk Uinta ground squirrels.

Such studies have also shown the coyote-badger affiliations are more common in rural areas untouched by humans—making this video all the more exciting, notes Megan Draheim, a conservation biologist at Virginia Tech and founder of the District Coyote Project, which studies the predators in Washington, D.C.

“This is a great reflection of how much nature and wildness there can be in urban areas, and why it’s important to think about nature and plan for it.”

It also gives the public a glimpse into the coyote’s playful side, Draheim adds. (Read how the most hated animal in America outwitted us all.)

Usually considered “mean, skulking animals,” coyotes are “very intelligent, and have a lot of interactions with other animals around them.” It’s amazing, she adds, “how close that [coyote in the video] mirrors the playfulness of our own dogs.”