Donkeys are one of the world's most famous animals. The donkey (Equus asinus) is a member of the Equidae family and shares a close relationship with horses and zebras. Donkeys and horses have distinctive features, such as prominent ears, compact bodies, and expressive eyes.
In movies like Pinocchio, donkeys are humble, persevering, and loyal animals. As we explore more interesting facts about donkeys, we will provide insight into their long and varied history and crucial role in human society.
Donkeys have been domesticated for over 5,000 years and have been crucial to human society since ancient Egypt in 3000 BCE2. Poitou Donkeys, in particular, are initially bred in Poitiou, France, and are used for mule production.
These hardy animals offer a dependable means of transportation and aid in various agricultural tasks as pack animals. Their impressive strength, endurance, and adaptability to extreme conditions rendered them indispensable; many rural communities still depend on them today.
They plow fields, pull carts, and transport goods on trade routes, actively shaping the development of human societies and economies. Furthermore, some even use them as guard animals for sheep and cattle. In Greece, donkeys work in vineyards.
Yet, donkeys are more than work animals. They display remarkable intelligence and sociability, forming deep bonds with their handlers. This loyalty and affection make them valuable labor partners and treasured family members.
There are three main types of donkeys: wild donkeys, domesticated donkeys, and feral donkeys. Wild donkeys, also known as wild asses, are the original, undomesticated ancestors of domesticated donkeys in regions like Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. They are typically larger compared to domesticated and feral donkeys.
Domesticated donkeys result from selective breeding and come in different sizes. They range from miniatures that stand less than three feet tall to larger breeds reaching over four feet at the shoulder. The size of domesticated donkeys can vary depending on their breed and purpose.
On the other hand, feral donkeys are descendants of domesticated donkeys that have returned to the wild or established feral populations. Their sizes can vary, but generally, they are similar to domesticated donkeys; some individuals are smaller or larger based on genetic variability and environmental factors.
One of the exciting facts about donkeys is that they go by different names in various cultures, such as burros, wild asses, and jackstocks.
In English-speaking countries, the term "donkey" commonly refers to male and female individuals of the species. However, when distinguishing between sexes, the term "jack" is used for males, while "jenny" or "jennet" is used for females. This distinction allows for clear identification and categorization based on gender.
In Spanish-speaking regions, people call donkeys "burros." Moreover, the term denotes both male and female individuals. The word "burro" has deep historical and cultural significance, particularly in North and South America, where these animals have played essential roles in transportation, agriculture, and labor.
Regarding donkey hybrids, people use different terms. For instance, a cross between a male donkey and a female horse produces a mule. Mules are known for their strength and endurance, making them valuable work animals. On the other hand, when a male horse and a female donkey are crossbred, the offspring is a hinny.
The world's smallest breed of donkey is called the Miniature Mediterranean Donkey. They are also known as Miniature Donkeys or Mini Donkeys. These small donkeys typically stand between 32 to 36 inches (81 to 91 cm) at the withers, the highest point of their shoulders.
These breeds originated from the Mediterranean islands of Sicily and Sardinia. They often serve as delightful companions and therapy animals.
On the other hand, American Mammoth Jackstock donkeys are the largest donkey breed. Males are at least 56 inches tall, while females are at least 54 inches. Some can even reach up to 60 inches.
Meanwhile, the American mammoth jackstock is a larger and stronger work animal bred in the United States. These donkeys have played a significant role in the nation's agricultural history. Their impressive size and strength enabled them to quickly pull heavy loads, plow fields, and transport goods long distances.
Another interesting donkey fact is that donkey vocalizations are called a "bray" or "hee-haw." These sounds help them stay connected with their other herd mates, even when they can't see each other. These unique calls are loud enough to be heard from three kilometers away.
Donkeys bray for various reasons. For example, male donkeys bray for mating calls, territorial displays, and alerting the herd to potential threats or predators.
Curiously, donkeys can vocalize while inhaling and exhaling, resulting in the iconic "hee-haw" sound. On the other hand, horses can only vocalize while exhaling.
Donkeys are social animals and live in herds for companionship, support, and safety. Herds usually consist of jennies (female donkeys), foals (young donkeys), and sometimes jacks (male donkeys). A dominant jenny or jack leads, protects, and guides the group.
However, donkeys are not just herd animals. They often create deep bonds with other donkeys, crucial to their well-being. Researchers have observed that relationships can impact the emotional state of a donkey1.
Separation from a change in living conditions or the loss of a companion can cause distress and even depression to these animals. Signs of separation anxiety may include pacing, excessive vocalizations, or loss of appetite.
For donkey owners and caretakers, it's vital to make every effort to keep bonded donkeys together. When separation is unavoidable, gradual introductions to new companions can help ease the emotional burden on the affected donkey.
These animals have developed traits to thrive in harsh desert conditions. Donkeys possess incredible water conservation abilities. Their kidneys extract water from their bodies, allowing them to survive on minimal hydration.
Additionally, they can tolerate high body temperatures, which helps them resist the scorching desert heat.
Physiological adaptations aside, donkeys also display physical traits tailored to life in arid habitats. Their tiny, sturdy hooves give them excellent traction on rocky and sandy terrain, making it easy to cover vast desert distances. Donkeys even have thick skin and coarse hair to shield them from the relentless sun and abrasive sandstorms.
You're halfway there! Find out why donkeys have enormous ears and why they are stubborn.
Donkeys have large ears, which typically measure 7 to 10 inches long. The donkey's long ears give them exceptional hearing capabilities. Furthermore, a donkey's big ears can move independently and convey messages to other donkeys through different ear positions. Through their ears, donkeys convey their mood, intentions, or level of alertness.
Lastly, donkey ears regulate their body temperature in hot and arid environments. The extensive surface area of their ears helps dissipate excess heat through blood vessels close to the skin's surface, aiding in their ability to tolerate high temperatures.
Humans have also used donkey ears for practical purposes, taking advantage of their size and mobility. Handlers use ear cues to communicate with donkeys, guiding them through commands and training.
Most people associate donkeys with stubbornness. Donkeys are stubborn because of their strong sense of self-preservation; they are cautious and thoughtful in their actions.
They have an innate ability to assess situations and prioritize their safety. If a donkey senses danger or identifies a task as risky, it may resist or refuse to comply3. This behavior can be seen as stubbornness, expressing their instinct to protect themselves.
Next on our donkey facts list: Donkeys have different sleep patterns from horses and camels. Donkeys usually sleep only two to four hours daily. Donkeys are alert and cautious animals; their sleep patterns reflect their need to remain vigilant while resting.
Just like horses, donkeys can take naps while standing up. However, they also need deep REM sleep for proper rest and rejuvenation, which they achieve by lying down. During this time, they find a comfortable spot and lie on their side or back with their legs tucked under them.
Though hay is the most common food for domesticated donkeys, donkeys eat other plants, like grass, shrubs, oats, and other desert plants. They can even eat vegetables like carrots and turnips. They have a low metabolism and can thrive on less food compared to other animals of similar size.
Donkeys have a long reproductive life compared to many other animals. Female donkeys, or jennies, become sexually mature around age 2 or 3. Furthermore, jennies can reproduce for most of their adult lives, usually lasting 15 to 25 years. The average lifespan of a wild donkey is 25 to 30 years.
A jenny can still give birth to foals in her twenties. Although their fertility may decline as they age, with proper care and attention, jennies can still contribute to their species' growth and continuation. In contrast, jacks maintain their fertility even longer, often fathering foals into their late twenties or early thirties.
After an extensive gestation period of 11-14 months, baby donkeys (foals) are born. They can stand and nurse within a few hours of birth. Vocalizations are crucial in foals' lives, as they help maintain a strong bond with their mother. Their vocal repertoire ranges from soft brays to more insistent calls.
Mothers nurse their foals for 4-6 months. After two years, the juvenile donkey can live without the donkey milk and starts consuming the usual plant diet.
One fact about donkeys is that they have become popular therapy and companion animals because of their gentle and intuitive nature. They provide emotional support and companionship to people with disabilities or mental health challenges. Donkeys can sense human emotions and comfort those dealing with anxiety, depression, or autism.
In recent years, the inclusion of donkeys in equine-assisted therapy programs has gained recognition due to their many benefits. Engaging in activities such as grooming and leading donkeys enhances communication and social skills but also aids in addressing emotional challenges.
Additionally, these interactions promote physical fitness and coordination, making them particularly advantageous for individuals with physical disabilities. Moreover, through these therapy programs, rescued or retired donkeys find a renewed sense of purpose, transforming lives and providing solace to humans and animals.
Goats are also therapy animals. Find inspiration through these goat quotes.
Donkeys themselves are not considered threatened species. However, particular wild ass and donkeys subspecies, such as the African wild ass, Somali wild ass, and the Asiatic wild ass, face conservation concerns and are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
For example, the African wild ass (Equus africanus) has become critically endangered due to habitat loss, poaching, and interbreeding with domesticated donkeys. Meanwhile, the Somali wild ass (Equus africanus somaliensis), also critically endangered, faces threats such as habitat loss and competition with livestock.
Furthermore, the third species is the onager (Equus hemionus), which includes various subspecies in central Asia. Some of these subspecies, like the Persian onager (Equus hemionus onager) and Mongolian wild ass (Equus hemionus hemionus), are endangered due to hunting, habitat loss, and competition with livestock.
Hybridization with domestic donkeys is a growing concern, as it affects the genetic integrity of wild donkey populations. Conservation efforts involve collaboration between conservationists, local communities, governments, and international organizations to protect habitats, raise awareness about preserving wild asses, and enforce legal protection.
For example, the Donkey Sanctuary in the UK has gained renown for its efforts in regulating the donkey trade.
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Briefer, S., Padalino, B., & Grandin, T. (2018). Analysis of the relationships between donkeys' emotional state and human-animal interaction. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 205, 81-89.
Rossel, S., Marshall, F., Peters, J., Pilgram, T., Adams, M. P., & O’Connor, D. H. (2008). Domestication of the donkey: Timing, processes, and indicators. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105(10), 3715–3720.
De Santis, M., Seganfreddo, S., Galardi, M., Mutinelli, F., Normando, S., & Contalbrigo, L. (2021). Donkey behaviour and cognition: A literature review. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 244, 105485.
Chinny Verana is a degree-qualified marine biologist and researcher passionate about nature and conservation. Her expertise allows her to deeply understand the intricate relationships between marine life and their habitats.
Her unwavering love for the environment fuels her mission to create valuable content for TRVST, ensuring that readers are enlightened about the importance of biodiversity, sustainability, and conservation efforts.
Fact Checked By:
Mike Gomez, BA.