For those who are most accustomed to seeing horses and donkeys on a farm or zoo, the idea of these wild animals may seem a bit strange. A new study published in the journal Science has proven their resources as independent animals, as they have found that they can only dig for themselves when exposed to small amounts of water.
As well as sustaining themselves, the resulting wells have very high environmental value to many other species – their existence can even further enhance the surrounding biodiversity. The study involved subjects related to feral horses and donkeys in the Golden Desert of North America where they observed four separate streams. Valuable resources would flow freely in the winter, but they would dry up in the summer.
Surveys throughout the summer of 2015, 2016 and 2018 revealed that mountain horses and donkeys were able to overcome this barrier by digging a well. “It’s a very hot, dry desert, and study author Eric Lundgren from the University of Aarhus in Denmark to New Scientist said,“ Suddenly there’s surface water where you’ll find this fantastic magical place. These resources are actually used by all other animals – there was a cockpit of the creature.”
After placing a well about 2 meters (6.6 feet) deep, the animals will take up their full space and leave the lifeline open for what wildlife needs. Throughout their observations, the researchers looked at 57 vertebrae besides horses and donkeys, including quail, squirrels and a pregnant bear from their hands. Interestingly, it’s not just animals that benefit from DIY water holes. By returning water to dryland ecosystems, these wells also support plant ecosystem processes. The fruit is better than the nearby dry site in the vicinity of the sites richness species and encourages environmental activity and sometimes even acts as a nursery for native trees.
“Evenly dug wells increased water availability, were used by many species, and reduced distances between water sources,” the study authors wrote. “Abandoned wells increase germination in native riparian tree species. Such flat excavations improve the availability of water, perhaps replacing a lost megafaunal function. Whether these wells affect all wildlife equally or whether they tend to be native or non-native species remains to be answered.
The answer has become increasingly important if donkeys were introduced to horses as a way to boost the ecosystem during the hot summer months, which are prevalent in arid regions (which are becoming more common due to climate change). While increasing biodiversity is considered to be helpful in tackling the climate crisis, more evidence is needed to accurately understand the impact that excavated reptiles may have on transmission to groups.