Geographical Range Northeastern Somalia and northern Ethiopia (in Africa)
Habitat Hilly and stony deserts; arid to semi-arid bushlands and grasslands
Scientific Name Equus africanus somaliensis
Conservation Status Critically endangered

The Littlest Wild Equid

The Somali wild ass is one of three subspecies (types) of African wild ass. Overall, the species is the smallest of the wild equids (horses, asses, and zebras). A typical African wild ass stands about four feet at the shoulder and weighs about 600 pounds. (To put it in perspective, the average Grevy's zebra stands five feet at the shoulder and weighs 900 pounds.)

Check Out Those Legs!

Somali wild asses are mostly gray in color, with a white belly. They do have one outstanding feature: the horizontal stripes on their legs. With legs like that, it's no surprise these animals are closely related to zebras.

Like all African wild asses, the Somali subspecies has long, narrow hooves -- the narrowest of any equid. This unique design allows the animals to be swift and surefooted in their rough, rocky habitat.

This Ass Eats Grass

Grass is the favored food of Somali wild asses, but they also eat shrubs and other desert plants. Like many other grazing animals, they first grasp a plant with their strong lips, pull it into their mouth, and then tear it off with their teeth. The teeth are large and have flat surfaces -- perfect for tearing and chewing even the toughest plants.

These animals graze mostly when it's cooler -- at dawn, dusk, and during the night. During the heat of the day, they often retreat to rocky hills to rest in shady spots.

Given their hot environment, it's no surprise that Somali wild asses stay within easy reach of water: they generally don't wander more than 20 miles from a drinking source. They can go without water longer than other equids, but they still need to drink at least once every two or three days.

Foaling Around

By the time a male Somali wild ass has reached his second year, he is capable of breeding. However, because he has to compete with older, stronger males, he's unlikely to mate before he's four years old. Females, on the other hand, generally begin breeding at the ripe old age of two.

Pregnancy lasts for about one year, after which a female gives birth to (usually) a single foal. Though the female is capable of having a new baby every year, it's more likely that she'll breed once every two years.

To Group or Not To Group

Mothers can always be found with their dependent foals, but otherwise there are no predictable groupings of Somali wild asses. Some animals (usually males) are solitary, living alone for periods of time. Others live in herds (all-male, mares and foals, or mixed herds), which can have up to 50 members. But these groups are flexible, and animals change herds frequently.

Some stallions defend territories, often around water supplies. A territory covers about nine square miles, on average. Within his home turf, the dominant stallion will tolerate males of lower status -- as long as they recognize his superiority!

Equids in Danger

All subspecies of the African wild ass (including the Somali wild ass) are critically endangered. This means they face an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.

Wild populations have declined for a number of reasons. For one thing, some local people have been known to hunt the asses for food and for use in traditional medicine. (Some native people believe the animals' fat is an effective treatment for tuberculosis.) Hunting has taken a greater toll in recent years, as political unrest in the area has allowed better access to automatic weapons.

African wild asses face other problems, brought about by increasing human populations and the expansion of agriculture. More and more, wild asses are competing with domestic livestock for limited grazing grounds and water sources. And as the wild and domestic animals come into contact, there is more and more interbreeding -- another serious threat to wild asses.

African wild asses need help if they're going to survive in the wild. An essential first step is surveying the wild populations to learn their numbers and distribution. This work is beginning now, through a partnership between the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Organization and the Saint Louis Zoo (see side story). These surveys will enable the researchers to develop detailed conservation strategies. Through these efforts, we hope to help African wild asses survive where they belong -- in the wild.

Fun Facts

  • They may be small, but they're fast: African wild asses have been clocked at 30 miles per hour.
  • In the 16th century, the Spanish brought domesticated African wild asses to the southwestern United States. The descendants of those animals -- best known as burros -- still roam through the Southwest.

Class: Mammalia
Order: Perissodactyla
Family: Equidae