In November, a hiker was traversing the coastal terrain of California’s Point Reyes National Seashore when he came across an unusual sight: a ghostly badger padding down the trail.
Photos of the pale carnivore made headlines across the San Francisco area, with most reports suggesting that the North American badger likely has leucism, an abnormality marked by a partial loss of pigmentation.
Since then, a local conservation photographer has made it his mission to capture more images of the animal—and his recent photos indicate that there might be a different explanation for its unique fur.
“I told my parents, I told my friends, ‘I’m gonna find this badger,'” Vishal Subramanyan, an undergraduate student at University of California, Berkeley, said in an interview with National Geographic. The badger’s appearance “was definitely abnormal coloration, but it didn’t strike me as leucism.” (See a rare white giraffe and other unusually pale animals.)
After spending multiple days kneeling in the grass of Point Reyes, Subramanyan finally got clear shots of the badger, which showed its fur color has a reddish hue that wasn’t as obvious in previous photos.
This pattern suggests the critter—whose sex is unknown—is more likely erythristic, a condition that causes a mammal’s coat to appear white with rusty hues, says Ted Stankowch, a professor of evolutionary ecology at California State University, Long Beach.
“It’s a super rare mutation,” says Stankowich, who has studied mustelids, a group that includes badgers, minks, and weasels. “I’ve never seen a badger that looks like that.”
Experts have only recorded two other cases of erythrism in North American badgers, burrowing carnivores found in grasslands across the western and central U.S., Canada, and northern Mexico. So far, erythrism has been identified in dozens of species, including reef manta rays, leopards, and European polecats.
What is erythrism?
Erythrism is likely caused by a recessive genetic mutation that triggers an increased production of red pigmentation in areas of fur or skin that are typically black, such as the badger’s facial stripes. There’s also some evidence that an animal’s diet can trigger the condition in some species, such as Baltimore orioles.
A typical North American badger is darker overall, with black and white stripes that stretch from the tip of their nose down their back.
“Facial markings often indicate ferocity, or they’re found in burrowing animals where the first thing that pops out of the burrow might be their face,” he says.
Because the recently discovered badger is missing those black-and-white face markings, it could put it at an increased risk of predation, says Stankowich.
That said, the species are aggressive, hissing and growling when cornered. If predators such as great horned owls do manage to snatch one up, the badger’s thick, loose fur will make it hard to hold for long.
And the badgers have the bark to match their bite, with razor-sharp teeth and strong jaws used to capture prey like prairie dogs and mice. They’ve even been documented hunting alongside coyotes, which benefits both species to capture prey. (Read why the badger-coyote ‘friendship’ excited scientists.)
While this erythristic badger’s reddish appearance may not have a huge impact on its ability to deter a predator, it could affect its odds of finding a mate, says Stankowich.
During mating season in summer and early autumn, male badgers seek out multiple female partners within their territories. (Watch a badger bury an entire cow.)
Males are “not necessarily territorial, though they often have overlapping ranges whereas females do not. Mating, as far as I know, occurs aboveground,” says Jessie Quinn, who has studied badgers and now works for Ascent Environmental, a consulting firm.
However, scientists aren’t yet sure how much appearance comes into play during courtship.
“You’d have to get inside the head of a badger in order to understand what goes into their choice of mates,” Stankowich says.
Unfortunately, we may not know the fate of this animal, says Subramanyan.
“I’ve spent more hours than I can say out there,” he says, and “I’ve never seen [the badger] again.”