At the start of the grainy video clip, the coyote is clearly waiting for something. It looks to its left and does a classic play bow - the move dogs and other canines make to keep playing with a partner.
Then comes what it's waiting for: a short and stout badger. The coyote turns around, and the unlikely pair walks together through a circular culvert.
That's it - just 11 seconds of two wild animals. But the footage captivated humans all week as it coursed through social media, where it was compared to a buddy flick, a Disney movie and a children's story. It inspired poetry from a wildlife ecologist - and it inspired art.
The clip was equally mesmerizing to the researchers responsible for the video, which was taken as part of a three-year study being carried out in the San Francisco Bay Area by Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST). The environmental conservation group has placed more than 50 remote-sensor cameras around the region to study how wildlife moves between the southern Santa Cruz Mountains and two other ranges, and to find out where animals are most often becoming roadkill. The area is crisscrossed by development and highways, only some of which have features that animals can use to cross - such as the under-road culvert the coyote and badger trotted through.
"This, by far, is a standout capture out of anything out of our work," said Neal Sharma, wildlife linkages program manager for POST, which is conducting the study in partnership with Pathways For Wildlife. "The body language from the coyote - that really catches the eye. But the moment that the badger snout enters the frame, that's what rendered me speechless."
Badgers and coyotes have occasionally been spotted hanging out before, mostly in wide-open spaces, where their skills at hunting ground squirrels and prairie dogs are complementary: Badgers can tunnel below ground to flush out prey, and coyotes can run quickly after the targets above ground. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shared photos in 2016 of one such badger-coyote duo in northern Colorado.
A 1992 study of badger-coyote associations in northwestern Wyoming concluded that the coyotes definitely benefited - meaning, ate more ground squirrels - from the relationship. The badgers probably also did, the researchers decided, but it was hard to tell, because they were so often below ground. What was clear was that the pairs had formed tolerant, if not friendly, relationships. The coyotes “encouraged badgers to move and search by mock pursuit and by scrambling around a specific site; by leading or by soliciting play,” the authors wrote. “The badgers’ behavior indicated the association with coyotes was either neutral or positive for them.”
Yet even though the animals are known to associate, the new California video stands out, Sharma said.
"These are two species that are very different and actually traveling through a human-made structure under a busy highway," Sharma said. "To our knowledge, it's a first."
Jennifer Campbell-Smith, a behavioral ecologist and science teacher in Colorado, wrote a widely shared Twitter thread about how "excited" she was by the video. It showed two predators that are often persecuted by humans - and that have been known to kill each other - being playfully at ease together, she wrote.
That the animals chose to ally in an area dense with people, where survival itself is a challenge, is even more remarkable, she said in an interview.
"The coyote was definitely excited about the badger, and the badger was about as excited as badgers get, which is, ‘I’m going to walk with you and not growl at you,’ " Campbell-Smith said. “We were looking at something where they were relaxed with each other, with no aggressive behavior shown. These are two animals that very much showed body language that they knew one another as individuals.”