Feral desert donkeys are digging wells, giving water to parched wildlife


Erick Lundgren, University of Technology Sydney; Arian Wallach, University of Technology Sydney, and Daniel Ramp, University of Technology SydneyIn the heart of the world’s deserts – some of the most expansive wild places left on Earth – roam herds of feral donkeys and horses. These are the descendants of a once-essential but now-obsolete labour force.

These wild animals are generally considered a threat to the natural environment, and have been the target of mass eradication and lethal control programs in Australia. However, as we show in a new research paper in Science, these animals do something amazing that has long been overlooked: they dig wells — or “ass holes”.

In fact, we found that ass holes in North America — where feral donkeys and horses are widespread — dramatically increased water availability in desert streams, particularly during the height of summer when temperatures reached near 50℃. At some sites, the wells were the only sources of water.

Feral donkeys and horses dig wells to desert groundwater.
Erick Lundgren

The wells didn’t just provide water for the donkeys and horses, but were also used by more than 57 other species, including numerous birds, other herbivores such as mule deer, and even mountain lions. (The lions are also predators of feral donkeys and horses.)

Incredibly, once the wells dried up some became nurseries for the germination and establishment of wetland trees.

Numerous species use equid wells. This includes mule deer (top left), scrub jays (middle left), javelina (bottom left), cottonwood trees (top right), and bobcats (bottom right).
Erick Lundgren

Ass holes in Australia

Our research didn’t evaluate the impact of donkey-dug wells in arid Australia. But Australia is home to most of the world’s feral donkeys, and it’s likely their wells support wildlife in similar ways.

Across the Kimberley in Western Australia, helicopter pilots regularly saw strings of wells in dry streambeds. However, these all but disappeared as mass shootings since the late 1970s have driven donkeys near local extinction. Only on Kachana Station, where the last of the Kimberley’s feral donkeys are protected, are these wells still to be found.

In Queensland, brumbies (feral horses) have been observed digging wells deeper than their own height to reach groundwater.

https://www.kachana-station.com/projects/wild-donkey-project/
Some of the last feral donkeys of the Kimberley.
Arian Wallach

Feral horses and donkeys are not alone in this ability to maintain water availability through well digging.

Other equids — including mountain zebras, Grevy’s zebras and the kulan — dig wells. African and Asian elephants dig wells, too. These wells provide resources for other animal species, including the near-threatened argali and the mysterious Gobi desert grizzly bear in Mongolia.

These animals, like most of the world’s remaining megafauna, are threatened by human hunting and habitat loss.

Other megafauna dig wells, too, including kulans in central Asia, and African elephants.
Petra Kaczensky, Richard Ruggiero

Digging wells has ancient origins

These declines are the modern continuation of an ancient pattern visible since humans left Africa during the late Pleistocene, beginning around 100,000 years ago. As our ancestors stepped foot on new lands, the largest animals disappeared, most likely from human hunting, with contributions from climate change.




Read more:
Giant marsupials once migrated across an Australian Ice Age landscape


If their modern relatives dig wells, we presume many of these extinct megafauna may have also dug wells. In Australia, for example, a pair of common wombats were recently documented digging a 4m-deep well, which was used by numerous species, such as wallabies, emus, goannas and various birds, during a severe drought. This means ancient giant wombats (Phascolonus gigas) may have dug wells across the arid interior, too.

Likewise, a diversity of equids and elephant-like proboscideans that once roamed other parts of world, may have dug wells like their surviving relatives.

Indeed, these animals have left riddles in the soils of the Earth, such as the preserved remnants of a 13,500-year-old, 2m-deep well in western North America, perhaps dug by a mammoth during an ancient drought, as a 2012 research paper proposes.




Read more:
From feral camels to ‘cocaine hippos’, large animals are rewilding the world


Acting like long-lost megafauna

Feral equids are resurrecting this ancient way of life. While donkeys and horses were introduced to places like Australia, it’s clear they hold some curious resemblances to some of its great lost beasts.

Our previous research published in PNAS showed introduced megafauna actually make Australia overall more functionally similar to the ancient past, prior to widespread human-caused extinctions.

Donkeys share many similar traits with extinct giant wombats, who once may have dug wells in Australian drylands.
Illustration by Oscar Sanisidro

For example, donkeys and feral horses have trait combinations (including diet, body mass, and digestive systems) that mirror those of the giant wombat. This suggests — in addition to potentially restoring well-digging capacities to arid Australia — they may also influence vegetation in similar ways.

Water is a limited resource, made even scarcer by farming, mining, climate change, and other human activities. With deserts predicted to spread, feral animals may provide unexpected gifts of life in drying lands.

Feral donkeys, horses (mapped in blue), and other existing megafauna (mapped in red) may restore digging capacities to many drylands. Non-dryland areas are mapped in grey, and the projected expansion of drylands from climate change in yellow.
Erick Lundgren/Science, Author provided

Despite these ecological benefits in desert environments, feral animals have long been denied the care, curiosity and respect native species deservedly receive. Instead, these animals are targeted by culling programs for conservation and the meat industry.

However, there are signs of change. New fields such as compassionate conservation and multispecies justice are expanding conservation’s moral world, and challenging the idea that only native species matter.The Conversation

Erick Lundgren, PhD Student, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney; Arian Wallach, Lecturer, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney, and Daniel Ramp, Associate Professor and Director, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Tiny desert mice could help save Australia’s grasslands from invasion


Christopher Edward Gordon, University of Wollongong and Mike Letnic, UNSW Australia

You should stop skylarking about with those bloody desert mice and try and stop those woody weeds. I could see clear through that paddock in the ‘60s. Now look at it. That scrub costs us tens of thousands of dollars in lost fodder and it’s almost impossible to muster the livestock.

That blunt assessment of our research, first offered by a local farmer in Australia’s arid rangelands almost seven years ago, raised an irresistible question for us as field ecologists. Why are Australia’s (and many others around the world) grasslands becoming woodier?

It certainly was a question worth asking. Shrub encroachment – an increase in the cover of woody shrubs in areas once dominated by grasses – is not just an issue in Australia.

In two recent papers published in the journals Ecography and the Journal of Animal Ecology, we looked at one key reason why trees are invading grasslands, and how we could stop them. And it all comes down to tiny desert mice.

Shrub invasion

“Invasive native vegetation”, as bureaucrats call it, is a major problem for livestock producers in drylands throughout the world. This is because the shrubs compete for space and light with the grasses needed to feed their cattle and sheep.

Shrub encroachment ‘inside’ the Dingo Fence.
Dr Ben Moore

It is a hard problem to tackle. Clearing and fire are the most common methods of controlling woody shrubs. But these methods are laborious and often hard to implement on large scales.

Removing shrubs is also contentious because these are typically native species that provide important habitat for wildlife. The New South Wales parliament’s controversial relaxation in November of regulations governing vegetation clearing were designed partly to allow farmers to remove invasive native vegetation.

What’s going on?

The causes for the spread are complex and poorly understood. Shrub encroachment is often attributed to overgrazing by livestock, which favours the growth of shrubs over grasses. It has also been linked to a reduction in bushfires that wipe out the shrubs and an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, which can promote their growth.

However, we suspected another important factor could be at play. And it was those little desert mice that provided us with a big clue – and a possible solution.

Since European settlement, livestock grazing and the introduction of foxes, feral cats and rabbits have decimated Australia’s native mammals, especially in arid and semi-arid areas.

The bilbies, bettongs, native rodents and other small mammals that became rare or extinct across much of the continent in the early 20th century once played essential roles in Australian ecosystems, by shifting vast amounts of soil and consuming vegetation and seeds.

Historical accounts suggest that shrub encroachment quickly followed European settlement and mammal extinctions in many areas. This coincidence led us to ask: could the loss of native mammals be making Australia’s drylands woodier?

Hopping to it

To answer this question, we went to the northwest corner of NSW. Here the Dingo Fence marks the border with Queensland and South Australia.

The Dingo Fence.
Ben Moore

We wanted to know whether the local extinction of a native mammal, the dusky hopping mouse, which eats shrub seeds and seedlings, would allow more shrubs to grow. The Dingo Fence was the perfect study site because dusky hopping mice are common on the northwest side, “outside” the fence, where dingoes are present.

Dingoes keep fox numbers down, which are the mouse’s major predator. However, dusky hopping mice are rare on the “inside” of the fence (the NSW side), where dingoes are less common and foxes roam.

We first used historical aerial photographs to show that shrub cover was consistently higher inside the dingo fence (rodents rare) than outside (rodents common). We then did field surveys, which showed that the numbers of shrubs, their seedlings and their seeds were greater where rodents were rare.

We also showed that dusky hopping mice were major consumers of shrub seeds and capable of keeping the numbers of shrub seeds in the soil down.

Fieldwork in the Strzelecki Desert.
Dr Ben Moore

Going wild again

These results are exciting because they suggest that the loss of native mammals such as the dusky hopping mouse may be an important and overlooked driver of shrub encroachment, not only in arid Australia but also globally.

Perhaps more exciting, however, is how we can apply our work. Our research suggests that “rewilding” drylands by re-establishing rodents and other native mammal species that eat shrub seeds and seedlings, such as bettongs and bilbies, could curb the shrub invasion.

Although an abstract and even controversial idea, rewilding of native mammals would provide a long-term solution to a problem that has affected pastoralists for more than a century.

Further, it would represent a natural and cost-effective strategy with enormous benefits for the conservation of imperilled native mammals.

Before we can do so, we have to control foxes and feral cats across vast areas, which is no small feat. However, the economic and conservation potential make it an approach that is well worth taking seriously.

The Conversation

Christopher Edward Gordon, Associate Research Fellow, University of Wollongong and Mike Letnic, Associate Professor, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Photo Gallery: Australian Desert Scenes


The link below is to a photo gallery of some great Australian outback scenes in Australia’s desert regions.

For more visit:
http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/journal/view-image.htm?gid=4530