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Curiosities of our Environment: Wild Burros in the Desert

“We cannot judge at first sight the benefits and consequences of changes that man has introduced into different ecosystems. We overestimate our knowledge…”

The wild burro has been part of colonial culture since the Spanish introduced this species to the Americas in the 1500s. Equus asinus comes from Africa and has an uncanny ability to adapt to arid and dry ecosystems, in addition to being able to carry heavy cargo for days under these same conditions. They can find food and water on sterile ground, can survive after losing 30% of their weight in water, and can regain full hydration by drinking for about 5 minutes. If we lost just 10% of our body’s hydration, we would require medical attention for dehydration and would have to rehydrate ourselves over the course of an entire day in order to recover.

The burro played a fundamental role in the progress of North America, they were used during the development of the West in the search for gold and other metals. As these outcrops ended and the economy began to evolve, the burross were freed and gradually populated this entire territory. The lack of natural predators and diseases that affect them have been the precursor to their proliferation in the extreme terrain of Arizona and throughout the surrounding deserts. Their annual growth rate is close to 20%, which would classify them as a threat to native fauna and flora, creating concern for National Parks. They are also affecting people, as they are a common cause of traffic accidents and disruptions. In 1930, people started trapping and slaughtering these burros to eliminate their population, and in 1971, a federal law was issued authorizing the citizens to hunt both mustangs and burros to keep their populations in line. Over the years, campaigns have been launched to eliminate the burro in different states, without paying any attention to the behavior of this species. They are simply considered to be bad for the ecosystem because they are not originally part of it, without taking a closer look at the habits of the burro and how it might be influencing native species in a beneficial way.

However, as the burro is an example of adaptation and integrity, it has begun to attract the attention of scientists that want to study the habits of these equines and the secret of their success in this habitat. Mainly, their ability to resist arid terrain and to find water are their secrets to survive in this extreme ecosystem. They create holes that can reach 5 feet in depth, the results of which are small water wells from dry streams. These wells have been observed to enhance the ecosystem as they serve as germination zones for the cottonwood and willows. In addition, they serve as a habitat for different amphibians and insects, and are also frequented by all kinds of migratory and native birds, coyotes, bobcats and foxes. In some areas where the donkey has been eliminated, these wells are invaded by different species of cacti, destroying the possibility that fish or other native aquatic species can survive in them. The burro is dedicated to destroying or ingesting this vegetation that invades these water sources, effectively serving as the stewards of water for other species..

Another factor that is beginning to be considered is the predation of the donkey. Contrary to what was thought, equine carcasses have started to be found scattered throughout the desert with obvious signs of being preyed upon by mountain lions. A very positive sign, as the feline has had to learn how to hunt the burro and adapt in order to be successful, indicating that the mountain lion population is healthy.

Little by little, we are having a broader perspective of what the wild burro brings to the ecosystem. Not only does it dig wells, providing water for a wide variety of species, but it also supports other species to succeed in their life cycle, like the mountain lion and the coyote. We cannot judge at first sight the benefits and consequences of changes that man has introduced into different ecosystems. We overestimate our knowledge about an ecosystem and the way in which an invasive species, and the native ones, can interact or find a way to enter the cycle of said habitat. We overlook the idea that species have been moving for thousands of years and have had to adapt to cope with the threats that have emerged and disappeared in the different stages or changes that the planet constantly undergoes. And we are just another factor in the ecosystem, our impact has caused species to emerge or disappear, it is our natural role as an organism.

Irene Llorente is a designer and writer for The Cannabis Cactus Magazine. She likes drawing with pencils, painting with watercolors, and sometimes she works in digital 3D. Her interests include nature, specifically birds and bugs, exercise and historical theology. See her art on her website or Instagram.


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