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.
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.