Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Moroccan Ice Donkey

Several mysteries surround the famous Moroccan Ice Donkey, not the least of which is why a creature that lives in Antarctica year-round is named after a desert country in North Africa.

Explorer Ernest Shackleton, who first sighted the creature (and named it) from the decks of his rapidly disintegrating ship Endurance on his ill-fated 1914-1916 expedition, never fully explained why he gave the odd-toed pseudo-ungulate that particular name. Because the men hadn't seen fresh food in weeks, he was too busy eating the creature to make a detailed notation in his log (he later remembered that the creature tasted, strangely enough, like fish).

The Moroccan Ice Donkey feeds on slow-moving penguins and the occasional fish, although it prefers to stay out of the water. With its powerful chicken-like hind feet and strong, wide hooves, the Donkey can attain speeds of nearly 75 miles an hour and is a fearsome predator. It's not uncommon for expeditions to be attacked by the creatures, and an Ice Donkey is more than a match for a huskie. Early expeditions were beset by them, which is a major reason that the South Pole was discovered later than the North. Modern expeditions, which rely more on ice tractors and snow mobiles, have found easier going.

A relative of the more common desert donkey, also known as the "wild ass", the Moroccan Ice Donkey is probably the result of early mariners sailing off course. The donkey's distinctive appearance and physiology is an amazing case of an animal adapting to a new environment, and the inventiveness of Mother Nature.

In culture, the original version of The Thing was inspired by real-life tales of explorers terrorized by Ice Donkeys during a 1917 Antarctic expedition. In the endless night, the explorers thought the Ice Donkey, which they had never seen before, looked like a creature from another planet. Their frantic, paranoid logs, wrapped in oil skin, were all that survived. This event was also the inspiration for the Blair Witch Project. In the original Addams Family cartoons, Wednesday kept a Moroccan Ice Donkey as a pet, and in the Nintendo game Mario 64, an unlockable bonus level leads through a painting on the first floor to the "Ice Donkey Palace", where the player has to maneuver the plucky plumber so as to avoid a herd of rampaging Moroccan Ice Donkeys while skiing down a hill backwards.

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