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Abstract

We examined the broad hypothesis that one function of grooming by the European badger (Meles meles) is to disadvantage (possibly by removal) parasitic badger fleas (Paraceris melis). We pursued two lines of investigation. First, we used infra-red video analysis to examine the body areas reached by self- and allo-grooming badgers. We expected that if grooming was important to disadvantage fleas then allo-grooming would cover areas that could not be reached by self-grooming. Badgers preferred dorsal allo-grooming and ventral self-grooming, and when combined, the overall amount of grooming per square centimetre of skin area provided even body coverage, pointing to a hygienic function, rather than a purely social function. Secondly, we examined fleas’ responses to simulated fur disturbance, characteristic of grooming. If grooming had no flea disadvantage effect, we would expect no response from fleas, and no directionality in their movement away from direct touch. The number of fleas encountered rapidly declined in successive 10-s counts during simulated ‘grooming’ at the same site. When badgers were ‘groomed’ on alternate sides (mimicking the badgers’ rapid alternation of grooming position), there was a marked increase in fleas when grooming resumed on the original side. Similarly, when ‘grooming’ was suspended for 40 s, there was an initial increase in the number of fleas when ‘grooming’ was resumed. Disturbed fleas tended to run downwards relative to gravity and towards the posterior of the badger, following the direction of hair growth. This contrasted with the behaviour of fleas removed from badgers which tended to run upwards and jump. We concluded that the pattern of badger grooming and the fleas’ response to disturbance was consistent with a hypothesis that badgers and badger fleas have strategies and counter strategies to maximize and minimize contact (respectively) during grooming.