Wild horses and donkeys dig wells in the desert, providing water for wildlife

These unexpected “ecosystem engineers” provide hydration for dozens of animal species, from badgers to elf owls to toads.

Wild horses walk through dry brush in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada, near where the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts come together. New research shows wild horses and burros in both deserts can dig wells up to six feet deep to find water.

Humans have a long history of digging wells, but we're not the only species to tap the earth for water: New research reveals wild horses and donkeys, also known as burros, can as well.

As described in a paper published April 29 in the journal Science, the animals use their hooves to dig more than six feet deep to reach groundwater for themselves, in turn creating oases that serve as a boon to wildlife—American badgers, black bears, and an array of birds, including some declining species such as elf owls. 

Horses and burros, introduced into the wild over the centuries, have taken up residence in scattered populations throughout much of the American West. The wells they dig transform into “hotbeds of animal activity,” says Erick Lundgren, a postdoctoral researcher at Aarhus University in Denmark and the study’s first author.

Watching the wells 

Over the course of three summers, researchers set up camera traps to observe wildlife at four sites in the Sonoran desert, in western Arizona, and at one site in the Mojave Desert near Baker, California, all in seasonal riverbeds. Donkeys frequented and dug wells at four locations, while horses did the same at another; both species are capable diggers that shovel sand and gravel backward, mainly with their front hooves.

The scientists found that a total of 57 species came to these equine-created wells to drink: raptors, such as red-tailed hawks and Cooper’s hawks; smaller birds such as yellow warblers, hooded orioles, and scrub jays; large mammals such...

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