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Donkey or Burro??

3 May

They are the same animal. The only difference is the time frame and location in which the two names came into usage. On the other hand, before either of these words were ascribed to this cousin of the horse, it was called an ‘ass’. And it still is in most countries. What’s the difference?

Asses, zebras, and horses are members of the genus, Equus, which is from Latin for ‘horse’. DNA recovered from a fossilized horse bone (700,000 years old) places their common ancestor to be between 4.0 and 4.3 million years ago. Although the domestic horse and the zebra species have gone through several intermediates on the evolution tree since then, the ass has not. So how did the ass become a donkey or burro?

The wild ancestor of the domesticated donkey was the African ass, Equus africanus, which lived in the deserts of northeastern Africa. Members of the latter were domesticated as work animals around 3,000 B.C. in Egypt and Mesopotamia. In the late 18th century, the English name ‘donkey’ came into use, probably formed from the word ‘dun’, referring to the dull gray-brown color of the animal, and the suffix ‘-key’ to rhyme with ‘monkey’. However, in other areas of the globe, the animals were still referred to as ‘asses’.

Because it can carry heavy loads and cope with hot and dry conditions, the donkey became one of the most important domesticated animals. They were also favored for their easy maintenance; they are very adept at foraging for their own food. These traits, along with their toughness and adaptability, able them to thrive in harsh arid surroundings. Consequently, the Spanish found them invaluable during their explorations and establishment of settlements and missions. And it was the Spanish that brought them to the American continents during the 1400 and 1500’s along with their cousin equines, the horse.

Spanish explorers introduced the donkey to the subtropical deserts and semi-deserts of northern Mexico and the American Southwest during the 1500’s. The animal began to be known in Mexico as ‘burro’ in the early 19th century. Burro probably derives from the Spanish ‘burrico’ and the Late Latin ‘burricus’, meaning “small, shaggy horse.” Consequently, the animal may be called ‘donkey’ or ‘burro’ depending on which side of the border you are on. And an ‘ass’ if you are on the other side of the ocean.

Regardless, all three – donkey, burro, and ass – are the same genus and species: Equus africanus. On the other hand, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature ruled in 2003 that the domesticated ass, aka the donkey/burro, may also be classified as E. africanus asinus, simply because the domesticated animal was classified and named before the wild ass. Consequently, one will find the donkey/burro with either scientific name, whereas the wild ass will be associated only with the one. Although the colors and a few other small appearance details may distinguish the wild and domesticated ass, they are genetically the same animal.

Burros in Big Bend

Myths and legends abound relating stories on how the burro came to the Big Bend area. Without doubt, the animals arrived by many means and over many centuries. With the Spanish explorers and conquerors, and Mexican settlers, came the burros into the American Southwest. They were tough as nails, adapted to the arid and undeveloped area, and needed little in the way of husbandry efforts. They were the perfect work beasts.

Burros in Big Bend (photo courtesy of Rick Ethan, Terlingua)

Burros in Big Bend (photo courtesy of Rick Ethan, Terlingua)

Later came the prospectors and miners of the 1800’s and early 1900’s with their burros. As in Mexico, they became the favored beast of burden and they could almost fend for themselves. The animals hauled wood for railroads and fuel, ore from the mines, and grain for their human masters. Burros were also bred with horses for their hardy offspring, mules. These animals were used to haul stagecoaches and serve as supply trains for the Army during the early 1900’s.

Historically, burros were not corralled or tethered in the same way horses were. The usual practice was to leave them to forage on their own and then they were rounded up when needed. However, some escaped or were never rounded up. Many outlived their owners. They eventually roamed on their own and became ‘feral.’

Newspaper reports of burros abandoned by farmers can be found in the last several years. The series of droughts throughout the Southwest have prompted farmers to drop off burros in roadside pastures or other rural areas. These and other feral burros form small herds or join other herds. Escaped burros from across the border often join these herds and their population increases quickly. Burros are not heavily preyed upon and can live up to 40 years, so their population can double in less than three years if conditions are good.

An adult burro averages about five feet tall at the shoulders and weights about 350 pounds. It eats about three tons of food a year: grasses, forbs, browse. Their foraging can greatly impact the ecosystem that evolved and came into balance long before this non-native animal was introduced. Because of their large size, number and adaptability, the burro can be a problem for land managers in arid and semi-arid areas. If their numbers remain unchecked, their impact destabilizes the ecosystems they inhabit. Additionally, accidents on the roads are becoming more common. Burros aren’t motivated to move out of the roads and drivers crashing into wild burros.

Most feral burros live on public lands, especially the vast stretches of BLM land, national parks and wildlife preserves. The animals are not native to Texas or to the Americas. Nor are they a threatened and endangered species, or even of ‘heritage’ herds. Most of the animals have been abandoned from nearby ranches, many crossing the border from Mexico, and their offspring increase their populations.

Several national parks, such as Big Bend and Grand Canyon National Parks, had an early policy of hunting and shooting feral horses and burros to restore the lands to pre-human ‘wildness.’ In response to public outcry of mass killings, most of the national parks arranged for the capture and relocation of feral burros from their landholdings. However, they seem to return or replenish their numbers from mysterious origins.

Burros, donkeys and asses are the same animal. But, as for how they got here, you can choose your favorite legend.


Loons and innate responses

25 Apr

In the Chihuahuan desert, no one would expect to hear what might be the most eerie sound of the watery forests, a bird more commonly known throughout the northern portions of the US. Especially a water bird. Yet I did, in disbelief.

I heard it the other morning, but I discounted it. ‘No way!,’ I thought. But I heard it again this morning. I know that wail like the blood that runs in my veins and my ears. It stirs deep inside like a wolf howl.

My childhood and most of my adulthood was spent in the northern regions in this country: Maine, New York, and Oregon. I know this sound, I know this bird. It is ingrained in my being like the beating of my heart.

Conversely, the common loon is very rare here in these parts of the desert. Water is scarce, and loons are an aquatic bird. The only documented reports of loons in this area are 1937 and 1988 (in Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio del Norte). Both were spotted on the Rio del Norte in the National Park. Another report of a loon spotting was in Boquillas Canyon a couple years ago.

It is amazing how (and even that it does) our ‘lizard brain’ responds to certain sounds. People usually don’t question man-made sounds, or sounds of a predator. They are typically associated with danger, pleasure, risk, etc, which is a plausible explanation. But a bird call that has no threat, instead eliciting a profound feeling of inate and inexplicable comfort and alliance is almost always casually dismissed by the scientific community.

There is one that could offer an explanation, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran*, who researches synesthesia and mirror neurons. He is one of the few scientists that ‘thinks outside the box.’ If the smell of rain is almost universally associated with the color green, and with pleasure, is it not possible that a bird call can elicit a profound psychological response other than fear?

At one point long ago, as a conventionally trained scientist I would have dismissed all this. Until a wonderful professor in my graduate biochemistry class impressed upon me once that we must  at some point in our lives accept that sometimes there is no explanation for what we ‘know’. And ‘knowing’ is a dynamic process. It’s a journey, not a destination. For a chemist to tell me that, it altered they way I understand things. And it enhanced my life both as an individual and as a scientist in so many ways.

The loon call literally gives me goosebumps and, simultaneously, a surge of endorphins. It stirs inexplicable primitive feelings in which no words can explain. All I can do is close my eyes and become a part of the sound, the bird and it’s environment.

It’s a ‘Zen’ thing.

A sampling of the sounds for the common loon can be found at this link to the webpage provided by Cornell Lab of Ornithology (All About Birds website).

* V.S. Ramachandran is Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Distinguished and Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego. He is also Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute. I highly recommend reading his book, Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind and listening to his many podcasts on iTunes and elsewhere. He’s also a fantastic speaker with a great sense of humor.

A wandering verbena (Desert Verbena)

19 Apr
Glandularia bipinnatifida. Photo courtesy of Pam Gordon.

Glandularia bipinnatifida. Photo courtesy of Pam Gordon.

Folks driving along the desert roads this month may see many small tight masses of purple flowers waving in the breeze. The Desert verbena are at their peak of flowering right now.

Here’s another example of ‘mixed identity’. There are many common names for this plant: Desert verbena, Prairie verbena, Dakota vervain, Davis Mountain mock vervain, and Moradilla. While many common names exist for a particular plant, one can usually rely on a more specific scientific name. Not the case here (again).

Older published widlflower guides list this plant as Verbena wrightii, and a member of the Verbenaceae (or Vervain) family. While our plant of the week is indeed in the Vervain family it’s genus and species names have changed.

Glandularia bipinnatifida close up.

Glandularia bipinnatifida close up.

Back in the early 1800’s, naturalist Asa Gray named the plant for Charles Wright , a teacher, surveyor, and plant collector, known notably with the Mexican Boundary Survey. However, new molecular research tools in the last decade or so have determined that a few members of the Vervain family have different chromosomes (numbers and sequences) in their chloroplasts, the organelles in plants that are the powerhouse for producing energy (photosynthesis).

Scientists discovered that some genetic information has been transferred between members of the Vervain and Glandularia genus. In other words, members of these two genus and species have hybridized not just once, but possibly three times as these plants spread north from South America.

Although several plants were once classified as Verbena, and still resemble many of that genus, they have been reclassified (1979) based on genetic similarities and differences. The most commonly known reclassified member is that which was known as Verbena wrightii, or Desert Verbena. It is now recognized in the botanical literature and more recent wildlfower guides as Glandularia bipinnatifida. Although there are two subspecies of this plant referenced (G. bipinnatifida var. cilia. and G. bipinnatifida var. bipinnatifida), their taxonomic classifications remain invalidated and both will find them used synonymously for this species. Perhaps more chemical and molecular studies will elucidate any differences that may exist.

Meanwhile, if you get close enough and smell these plants you may or may not be enamored of their fragrance. While many members of the Vervain family and Verbena genus have pleasant scents, this one had to sit outside after I gathered some samples yesterday. 🙂

For those interested in a recent review of the latter issue, see the following reference, “Taxonomy of the GLANDULARIA BIPINNATIFIDA group (Verbemaceae) in the USA”, by Guy Nesum (of Forth Worth!) in Phytoneuron, issue 46, 2010.


12 Apr

So calm, quiet
Doves calling
Quail chumping
Owls announce dusk
Cactus flowers folding in
Divine scent of acacia
Heavy clouds blanket us
Like suspended foam
And canyon wren calls
Trickle down the mountain side.

So peaceful.
Let me stay here
In this moment.
A large sign, ‘Do Not Disturb’
As tall as this mountain
Enclosing me

Taking my lens for a hike

6 Apr

I braved the horrific wind this afternoon and took the 55-210mm telephoto lens for a walk. We haven’t really come to know each other over the last year or so. So I took off the overused 18-55mm and put on the big gun. We hiked up the saddle between the two mountains to a spot on a shoulder of my best friend mountain. The wind challenged us to hold still; flaunting, bullying and slapping us around. I ended up sitting on the ground with my elbows resting on a rock to shoot.

My first realization was the range of view: smaller than what I am used to.  Out here in Big Bend where the skies and horizon are larger and wider than a million football fields end to end, I actually had to think about subject and composition. Then try to hold still.

The sky and clouds were dramatic, the shadows slithered across the landscape like invisible dark waves. The scene changed every minute. And the wind slapped my lens and camera about. On the way back, my curses were lost in a silent roar as the wind shoved its nasty fingers up into my nose and then exited out my mouth. That’s how windy it was up there.

But it was all good. I’d do it again.

Corozones, Solitario and Witch’s Tit Mountains.

Dramatic clouds over Christmas Mountains.

Coasting on a thermal wind stream next to the mountain.

Sun shining on the Chisos Mnts in Big Bend National Park.


Below is my attempt at faux infra-red. The color rendition just didn’t do anything for me, but the entire scene is just eerie, as if this is No Man’s Land and to go there would be like entering another world. Demons and dragons. The post-processing imparts to the image the eeriness that I ‘see’ in the real landscape.

Magic land at the base of Christmas Mnts.


Here comes the sun.

Sun in a blue hole. No post-processing on this image!

Mountain Friend

27 Mar


I have come to know this mountain at whose ankles I rest. I could describe its formation in geological terms. But that would be window dressing on a mannequin. It’s eroded parts give nourishment to a variety of plants. Crevasses and shelves provide nesting sites for many birds and shelter for numerous animals. The skirted slopes were once part of those majestic knobs and angular protuberances that impart its silhouette in the dusk. Now, they are wild finger painting down its sides.

I listen to the rhythmic push of a raven’s wings as it flies up to the top to meet its mate. The pair of Great Horned owls hoot from their nest on a craggy outcrop. Creosote and yucca dot the slope where the rock slides haven’t taken them down with them. Quail peep, chatter and scrabble like little children. The mountain may be asleep, but it teems with life all it’s own.

This mountain has become a friend and it’s stories sing me lullabies. A small canyon is a door to a bowl. To walk into it is like entering the jaws of a monster while at the same time cuddling in its embrace. Climbing up into a saddle opens up to a wild view of the desert floor and more mountains beyond. Living here with this mountain is like waking up to a lover by your side. Accepting all its bad moments with the comfort of its arms.

Desert mountains are naked compared to those up north where they are clothed in furry trees. Here, they are raw and truthful in their nakedness, a directness that can incite awe or terror. Perhaps that is why I like them: they are bold and honest. Or perhaps because I am like a magnet, drawn to their ruggedness and plain beauty. Probably because I, too, am a creature of mountains. Destined to live on their slopes, at their feet, and in their confidence. With the owls, the ravens, the fox, and the yucca.

I call this Home.

Springing forwards and backwards

25 Mar

Most deserts are known for their extreme weather, especially temperatures. The northern Chihuahuan desert is no exception. We have had an unusually cold winter with prolonged periods of below-average temperatures. Of course, that parallels the rest of the country as well. However, here we have had temperatures in the 90’s during the day and in the high 30’s at night. Spring usually arrives with a pattern of more consistent temperatures and less extremes. This year, spring continues the vacillating extremes of temperatures. In many cases, new growth on plants have been damaged by repeated bouts of frost after days with high temperatures (high 80’s to near 100 degrees).

Regardless, many flowers are popping and leaves are emerging on trees, shrubs, perennials and even cacti. The yuccas have been sending up their giant flower masses throughout the southern Big Bend area for a few weeks now, and the coveted bluebells carpet many roadside areas. I have been capturing some of the lesser known flowers the last week or so, which also provides me with an opportunity to practice macro-photography. I will post some of those photographs here.

Feather Dalea (Dalea formosa)


Bowl Flax (Linum berlandieri)




Velvety Nerisyrenia or Mesa Greggi (Nerisyrenia camporum)

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