In the new study, scientists traced the family trees of the domestic donkey using samples from living animals, skeletons of African wild ass held in museums worldwide and isolated donkey bones from African archaeological sites.
"These were the first transport animals, the steam engines of their day," Marshall said. "Today domestic donkeys are often conceived of as animals of poor people, and little is known about their breeding. This is the first study to determine the African wild ass, which includes the Nubian strain, is the ancestor of the domestic donkey. That's important to know for efforts to preserve the species."
There are small numbers of the Somali subspecies of the African wild ass in zoos and wildlife preserves, and about 600 still exist in the wild in Eritrea and Ethiopia, but the Nubian subspecies was last seen in the Red Sea Hills of Sudan late in the 20th century.
Hope for its continued existence springs from a sample collected in northern Africa in the mid-1990s by co-author and biologist Albano Beja-Pereira of the University of Porto, Portugal. If any Nubian survivors are found, the possibility remains that the animals could be bred and reintroduced into the wild. The evidence reinforces the need for surveys and wildlife management plans in eastern Sudan and northern Eritrea, researchers say.
"The whole idea behind conservation is the need to maintain genetic variation," Mulligan said. "We don't know which elements are more or less important, but we think the whole range of diversity is important to the health of the species. Knowing the genetic makeup of the animals is essential to protect that diversity."
In addition, placing the domestication of the donkey in northern Africa helps scientists better understand the archaeological
|Contact: John Pastor|
University of Florida