by Alex Fox/Smithsonianmag.com
Wild horses and donkeys are often considered a problem in the American West, but new research suggests their penchant for digging wells with their hooves offers benefits to the ecosystems they inhabit, reports Douglas Main for National Geographic.
The study, published this week in the journal Science, shows that when wild or feral horses and donkeys dig wells, they increase the availability of water for other species living in the parched desert landscape. These wells can be up to six feet deep and provide access to groundwater to species including badgers, mountain lions, deer and birds.
Donkeys and horses were introduced to North America roughly 500 years ago, and the Bureau of Land Management currently estimates there are more than 95,000 wild donkeys and horses roaming the West. That figure is more than triple what land managers say the landscape can sustain, and the growing population can “trample native vegetation, erode creek beds and outcompete native animals,” writes Jonathan Lambert for Science News.