Competition and cooperation aren't mutually exclusive. Just ask a coyote or a badger.
Both are crafty carnivores, and since they often hunt the same prey in the same prairies, it would make sense for them to be enemies, or at least to avoid each other. But while they don't always get along, coyotes and badgers also have an ancient arrangement that illustrates why it can be smart for rivals to work together.
An example of that partnership recently unfolded on a prairie in northern Colorado, near the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center. And it was captured in photos, both by a wildlife camera trap and by sharp-eyed photographers:
A field camera caught this amazing shot, which shows the coyote and badger trotting across the landscape with a prairie dog looking on in the foreground. (Photo: National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center/Facebook)
While it's relatively rare to capture such good photos of a hunt like this, the phenomenon is well-documented. It was familiar to many Native Americans long before Europeans reached the continent, and scientists have studied it for decades. It has been reported across much of Canada, the United States and Mexico, according to Ecology Online, typically with one badger hunting alongside one coyote.
(In one study published in the journal Mammology, researchers at the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming found that 90% of all coyote-badger hunts featured one of each animal, while about 9% involved one badger with two coyotes. Just 1% saw a lone badger join a coyote trio.)
But why would these predators work together at all? When one of them finally catches something, they aren't known to share the spoils. So what's the point?
The point, apparently, is to improve the likelihood that at least one of the hunters will snag some prey. Even if that means the other one ends up empty-handed, the partnership seems to pay off for both species in the long run.
Each member of the hunting party has a distinct set of skills. Coyotes are nimble and quick, so they excel at chasing prey across an open prairie. Badgers are slow and awkward runners by comparison, but they're better diggers than coyotes are, having evolved to pursue small animals in underground burrow systems. So when they hunt prairie dogs or ground squirrels on their own, badgers usually dig them up, while coyotes chase and pounce. The rodents therefore use different strategies depending which predator is after them: They often escape a digging badger by leaving their burrows to flee aboveground, and evade coyotes by running to their burrows.
When badgers and coyotes work together, however, they combine these skills to hunt more effectively than either could alone. Coyotes chase prey on the surface, while badgers take the baton for subterranean pursuits. Only one may end up with a meal, but overall, research suggests the collaboration benefits both hunters.
"Coyotes with badgers consumed prey at higher rates and had an expanded habitat base and lower locomotion costs," according to the authors of the National Elk Refuge study. "Badgers with coyotes spent more time below ground and active, and probably had decreased locomotion and excavation costs. Overall, prey vulnerability appeared to increase when both carnivores hunted in partnership."
A coyote-badger duo at Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico. (Photo: Larry Lamsa [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
Badgers and coyotes aren't always friendly, though. While the majority of their interactions "appear to be mutually beneficial or neutral," Ecology Online notes they do sometimes prey on each other. The two species have developed "a sort of open relationship," according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), since they tend to collaborate in warmer months, then often drift apart as winter sets in.
"In the winter, the badger can dig up hibernating prey as it sleeps in its burrow," the FWS explains. "It has no need for the fleet-footed coyote."
Not at the time, anyway. But winter eventually turns to spring, and these two hunters may start to need each other again. And just as they have for thousands of years, they'll make peace, embrace their differences and get back to work.