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African Wild Ass (Equus africanus) & Domesticated Donkey (Equus asinus) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Activity Cycle

  •  In the wild, grazes from dawn till late morning and again in late afternoon; rests in heat of day. (Nowak 1999)

Territory Size

African Wild Ass

  • Wild stallions may occupy a territory in order to mate with females that enter the space; herds dissolve each evening. (Klingel 1990)
    • Stallion marks territory with dung heaps.
  • African Wild Asses have a territory averaging about 23 sq. km (8.9 sq. mi) (Klingel 1990)
    • This territory is unusually large for a hoofed animal; no biological explanation is known for this behavior. (Klingel 1998)

Domestic donkey

  • Feral domestic donkeys have the same behaviors in North American deserts as in African wild asses: in more lush habitats, permanent territorial groups are established with one or more stallions and mares. (Klingel 1990)
  • Feral domestic donkeys studied in Arizona had a mean annual home range of 19.2 sq.km ( 7.4 sq.mi)

Social Groups

Wild asses show different social organization depending on the environment. (Moehlman 1998)

  • In arid habitats: the only stable groups are a female and her recent foal - seen in Death Valley wild burros
  • In moderately wet (mesic) habitats, they form longer-term stable harem groups of bonded females and one or more adult males.

No permanent bonds between Equus africanus adults; live in arid habitats small unstable groups of variable composition. (Klingel 1998) (Moehlman 2002)

  • Klingel (1998) observed young up to 3 years with adult mares and stallions.
  • Larger groups might have more than one stallion.
  • Two herds observed in the 1970's in Ethiopia had 43 and 49 asses, each with 11 stallions

In desert habitats, stallions tolerate other males in their territory, but prevent access to the mares. (Klingel 1990)

Hierarchy

  • Stallions defending a territory are dominant but tolerate subordinate males. (Nowak 1999)
  • No regular leader for migrations; any adult donkey, male or female can lead. (Klingel 1998)

Territorial Behavior

Wild asses are territorial in their mating habits; the stallion attempts to keep other stallions away from mares within its territory. (Klingel 1990)

Males attempt to control access to a critical resource - water - in order to have access to females. (Groves 2002)

Aggression

  • Territorial stallions chase or escort intruding males away from the mares (Klingel 1998)
  • Mares and stallions defend young from intruders and herd mates. (McDonnell 2003)
  • Levels of aggressive behavior were lower and mutual grooming more common in the feral donkeys that occupied habitats with ample resources; donkeys in desert habitats were more aggressive and groomed each other less often. (Moehlman 1998)

Social Interactions

Play

  • As in all horses, foals engage in many play behaviors (McDonnell 2002,2003)
    • Toy with interesting objects in their environment: pick up, carry, sniff, chew, shake, pull, or paw items
    • Mount other young or adults
    • Frolic, run, chase, buck, jump, leap
    • Engage in King of the Mountain competitions and play fighting
    • Moehlman (1998) observed more play in foals living in a resource-rich environment on a Georgia barrier island than ones living in Death Valley, California.

Communication

Displays

  •  A territorial stallion shows dominance by postures(McDonnell 2003)
    • Upright stance
    • Forward facing ears,
    • Ritual chasing of other stallions
    • Examination of other individuals' scents

Vocalization

  • Females call males during estrus
  • Grunts and growls are antagonistic
  • Whuffles communicate position to others
  • Snorts indicate alarm
  • Calls termed brays (hee-haws) travel long distances
    • Donkey brays are unique: are made when breathing in ("hee") and breathing out ("haw"). (Browning & Scheifele 2001)

Olfaction/Scent Marking

  • Stallions examine nasal and genital areas of other asses for scent information.  
  • Dung heaps left by territorial stallions do not ward off intruders (Klingel 1998)
    • Purpose seems to be to help the stallion recognize his own territory.

Locomotion

  • Wild individuals have been clocked at 50 km/hr.
  • Most common modes of locomotion are symmetrical walk or trot and an asymmetrical gallop
    • Also canter, jump, and swim.

Interspecies Interactions

  •  Feral donkeys may outcompete mountain sheep in many ranges. (Groves 1974)

African Wild Ass Foal

A young wild ass playing

Foals engage in many play behaviors; like frolicking, running, and chasing.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Browning & Scheifele (2001)
Groves (1974)
Klingel (1990, 1998)

McDonnell (2003)
Moehlman (1998)
Nowak (1999)

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