Zebras are the showboaters of the Equidae family with their flashy coats and exotic locales.

It’s their stripes that noticeably set them apart from our beloved horses, much the way the donkeys’ long ears set them apart. And this is why I have decided to delve into the reason zebras have stripes.

Why so snazzy?

Why zebras have stripes is a puzzling question that no one can answer with certainty. There are, of course, several different theories biologists are leaning towards.

One such theory is camouflage. And while I am not a scientist of any kind, I think this makes sense based solely on the fact that wild animals are generally designed to blend in seamlessly with their environment.

The wilds of Africa may not appear overly striped vertically or horizontally, but mother nature seems to know what she is doing. I would have thought elephants would always be easy to spot given their size and gray color against the tawny vegetation, but I can assure you those juggernauts can slip right past you without your knowledge. So, I say yes to camouflage, if anyone is asking.

Recommended: My Encounter with the Ghosts of Africa

Another thought is that the stripes are designed to confuse. Stare at a series of vertical lines and your eyes will begin to play tricks on you. Could it be the same for predators? When a few marauding lionesses approach a herd of zebra, might it be difficult for them to single out just one, in a sea of dizzying lines? I feel that yes, the lioness’s eyes may go a little whirly looking at all those stripes, though one dart toward the herd and they are going to disperse, and the confusion will lift. Again, nobody asked for my opinion, but I thought I’d give it anyway.

Thermoregulation is another belief, and since I have no idea how that would even work, I will just agree that it sounds like a plausible idea.

Some biologists have tossed social recognition into the hat of ideas. Each zebra has a unique stripe pattern, much the way we all have different fingerprints. I suspect smell and vocal recognition would play more of a role in a zebra identifying Bob from Bill, but then I’m not a zebra.

The final and most promising theory is that the stripes keep the flies and bugs at bay. In one experiment zebras and uniformly colored horses were placed in similar paddocks, with, no doubt, volunteers leaning on the fence watching to see what the flies did. While the flies buzzed around the zebras, they landed on them far less often than the poor evenly coated horse.

In the next phase of the experiment striped blankets were placed on the bland coloured horses, and what do you know, the flies became less keen. If you want to run this test with your horse, there are zebra-striped fly sheets and more on the market.

As an aside: North American flies and bugs are annoying, but they aren’t out to kill. In African countries, however, tsetse flies spread African Animal Trypanosomiasis, while midges and mosquitos spread African Horse Sickness, both of which can lead to death.

A dazzling array of facts

A few things you may not know about Zebras:

  • A herd of zebras is called a dazzle, though some prefer a zeal of zebras, and I have to say both are remarkably good names.
  • Though zebras appear to be white with black stripes, they are actually black with white stripes—the skin under their coat is black.
  • Zebras can run 65 km/hour or 40 miles/hour, which gives them a fair shake at outrunning predators.
  • Zebras have been known to kill lions.
  • Foals can run with the herd within a few hours of being born.
  • Horses, zebras and donkeys can crossbreed, however, due to each species having a different number of chromosomes, all offspring are sterile. Zebroids is the general term for a horse/zebra combo, but if the father is a zebra and the mom is a horse you create a zorse. If the opposite were true, you’d create a hebra. Zebras can also breed with donkeys, and they produce a Zedonk. A zedonk, what a great word.
  • Zebras bray similar to donkeys but also make noises similar to horses.

Species and their subspecies

There are 11, yes 11, different types of zebras, consisting of three species and eight subspecies, though there used to be nine.

We have the Grevy’s, Mountain, Cape Mountain, Hartman’s Mountain, Plains, Selous’, Burchell’s, Grant’s, Maneless, Chapman’s and Crawshay’s.

Several of the species/subspecies are on the Red List of Threatened Species. The Grevy’s zebra is listed as Endangered as there are only 2,800 left in the wild. The Mountain and Hartmann’s Mountain are categorized as Vulnerable. The Plains is Near Threatened, the Selous’ is Critically Endangered and the Quagga, which makes up the ninth subspecies is extinct, though there is talk of trying to resurrect the Quagga with selective breeding from the Plains zebra.

Each type of zebra differs in diet, size, stripe pattern, teeth, social structure, location, habitat and so on the list goes. Despite the differences, the reason populations of zebras are dwindling is due to drought, overgrazed common land and hunting. Sadly, and surprisingly, zebras are hunted for their meat, their skin and to lessen the strain on grazing land.

A few more facts

Zebras, horses and donkeys belong to the Equidae family and Equus genus. All wild zebras live in various African countries, while the wild ass comes from either Africa or Asia.

There are seven species of the Equus genus, which include the domestic horse, the wild Przewalski’s horse, three species of ass and three species of zebra.

There is a rare genetic mutation called pseudomelanism, which is an abnormality in a stripe pattern. This abnormality occurs in smaller, isolated populations of zebras who are unable to migrate far enough, due to land division, to breed with other populations, which leads to inbreeding.

Most zebras with abnormal coat patterns are seen only as juveniles, suggesting they don’t make it to adulthood. If adult zebras are found with an unusual coat pattern, it’s in an area with low predation.

In closing

We may not know exactly why zebras have stripes, but I think we can all agree we are glad they have them.

Several foundations are working hard to save zebras of varying species. A few of the organizations are on the sources list.