Winter lethargy? Badgers feel it too…

Posted on: 26 December 2016

The presents have been opened, the turkey has been (mostly) eaten, and the pre-Christmas excitement has begun to subside. For many of us, this is the time for staying warm, recharging our batteries and essentially doing very little.

Interestingly, according to Trinity zoologists, badgers also experience “winter lethargy” – at least when temperatures drop to expected seasonal extremes. Of course, while we may simply adopt the lazy lifestyle by choice at this time of year, the badgers do so to survive.

Professor Nicola Marples and PhD candidate, Aoibheann Gaughran, work in Trinity’s School of Natural Sciences. They are interested in the life history, movement, and social structures of badgers – and focus on understanding how they interact with each other and with other animals, such as cows, which sometimes contract bovine TB. Badgers can harbour the disease but how – and to what extent – they transmit it to cattle is poorly understood.

The zoologists feature – along with their charismatic creature subjects — in Tuesday December 27th’s episode of Big Year on the Farm, which airs at 6:30 pm on RTÉ;1.

Professor Marples said: “Badgers are generally inactive at this time of year. They endure ‘winter lethargy’ although they don’t actually go into full hibernation. The females are pregnant in December and January and give birth in February, and the males also tend to stay in the sett, sleeping much of the time.”

“The latest work at Trinity, in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, shows the surprising finding that in warmer winters, such as last year’s, some male badgers kept active all year, ceasing to show the winter lethargy at all. This is important for the social system of the badgers as the males will be absent, not defending their mates from visiting males, just when the females would like to be left alone with their tiny new born cubs.”

Anyone tuning in to Tuesday’s programme will also see some summer footage of the badgers on the farm. Because badgers are nocturnal, they rely mostly on their sense of smell to detect other badgers and to navigate around their environment. Badgers are intelligent animals and have evolved a number of behavioural adaptations to help them succeed in the game of life.

The Department of Agriculture is currently assessing the strategy of vaccinating badgers against TB as a long-term policy for sustainable control of the disease. The vaccine will eventually be delivered in food to the badgers. As viewers will learn, TB casualties often occur in cattle herds without any badger involvement, as the disease can be easily spread between cows themselves.

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