Persian Onagers Dig the Snow

This update was written by ungulate keeper Morgan Vance

It has been a fairly mild winter at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia. But we did have one bigger snow day on Jan. 7. It snowed almost 6 inches at some of our barns. The barn that houses our Persian onager mares and foals had lots of snow, and it was the first ever snow fall for the foals. There are no snow days for zookeepers though! While school systems are closing, we are making sure the animals are well taken care of and fed. We keep working with as little disruption as possible, making sure that all of our animals have a warm and dry place to get out of the weather (if they want) and plenty of food to eat.

Ungulates, such as equids (which includes onagers), maintain their body temperature by constantly eating. Their digestive systems act as a furnace, and if the furnace has enough fuel (forage in this instance), then they can stay warm.  The first step of our snow preparations is to provide all of the onagers with plenty of forage. If it seems like we might need to make the barns extra cozy and insulated from the cold, we’ll put out extra bedding or heaters. There are guidelines that we follow to give us parameters of what each species needs — such as heat, bedding and social dynamics.

Persian onagers in their pasture in the snow.
Persian onagers enjoying the snow in their pasture Jan. 8, 2020. 

Onagers, unlike some species, are built to withstand colder temperatures, even though they come from a more arid, desert environment. Desert environments have both extremely high and low temperatures and they can swing dramatically between the two. Luckily, for that reason, the onagers do well even in the winter and most of them enjoy the colder temperatures. During the winter months, we see that the onagers and Przewalski’s (sha-VAL-ski) horses are much more active. They grow longer coats that insulate them and help maintain their body temperatures.

Younger animals have a harder time regulating their body temperatures, but now that our onager foals are 4 and 5 months old, they have acclimated to the varying temperatures. Since we had a heavy snow, grass was not visible and was under a 3 or 4-inch layer of snow. The foals were quick to learn that they could move the snow out of the way with their noses, revealing grass is just under it. We did make sure to give them some hay, just in case they didn’t learn as quickly and needed supplement.

The foals are thriving and interacting with each other quite a bit. We have noticed lately they run and play in their field with each other daily. The foals’ moms are much more accepting of their foals being farther away and other herd members interacting with them. All three foals are still nursing and won’t wean until the summer. We will eventually separate the males from their moms, since they would naturally separate from their mothers as they mature. (They leave their natal herds to build their own and maintain genetic diversity) Until then, they are still learning from their moms about how to push the snow out of the way to get to the grass underneath.