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James Tyrrell


James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills that complemented his Honours degree in Zoology meant that he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the ...

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on FINALLY: the REAL Reason Zebras Have Stripes

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I have heard all the various theories concerning zebra stripes over the years, and my inclination is that several could be true at the same time, as you pointed out. Insect repellant, dazzling predators, allowing foals to identify mum’s uniquely striped bum. In any case, wearing dark blue or black clothing when touring in tsetse fly areas is a certain way to attract those pesky beasts, so I wonder…

I thought Zebea has got stripes to confuse predators. The fly theory is a new one to me. As you mention James, why don’t all animals not have stripes then. Maybe stripey clothes will help us humans.

James, it is not possibly the type of paint they used that deter the biting little buggers? But interesting theory none the less. 🙂

Interesting point Gawie.
It would be great to see the experiment repeated with a different type of paint…

Senior Digital Ranger

The Japanese scientists actually considered the paint! They painted some cows just with entirely black stripes, and some cows with black and white stripes.

The black-striped cows had flies settle on them and bite them at the same rate as unstriped cows, whereas black and white stripes confuse flies. Interestingly, this only works up close. All of them attract flies from a distance, but fewer flies settle on stripes.

The U.K. experiment on horses tested 3 captive zebras vs. horses, and then also horses wearing white, black or striped coats. Again, flies approached them a similar amount, but they didn’t slow down near the zebras and striped coats. Basically they just bumped into the animal, then decided not to settle. The stripes seem to confuse them that the striped being is actually an object/animal.

Last, zebras react more than horses when they have a fly on them. They swish their tails, bite at the fly, and even run away. Horses don’t do that as much, which suggests zebras live in areas where it’s more important (from a disease point of view) that they don’t get bitten.

I think Wildebeest have stripes too, only not as obvious as zebra……

Hi Irene,
This is a very good point which I didn’t actually consider…

Senior Digital Ranger

James..good stuff as usual..can’t tell you how many times I’ve absolutely nailed a Tsetse with what I thought was a death strike..only to have it look at me with disdain and attack me again. Hang in there.

Senior Digital Ranger

There is actually a scientific report on this topic, from which the tweets etc. come: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6776349/

Japanese scientists found 50% fewer biting flies landed on cows painted with zebra-like stripes.

A separate bunch of white coats in England put striped coats on horses, and found that just like zebras, biting flies settle less often on “striped” horses:

These guys in an earlier paper noted that the tsetse fly range and the range of zebras overlap to a great degree.

So there’s mounting evidence stripes do indeed lead to fewer bites. The scientists in Britain also noted zebras swish their tails a lot, and even run away from flies, so there are other reasons they get bitten less than horses (and presumably cows)!

Personally I buy more into the idea that when you’ve got a herd of zebra running away from a predator, it’s very confusing for them to see, particularly if predators see less colour than we do.

Could be both, though, right? The stripes confuse lions, and flies!

It’s an excellent question why all other species don’t have stripes, if they occur in the same location as zebra fleeing fangs and claws as well as flying biting beasts. Equids do appear susceptible to some diseases spread by flies (according to a 2014 study by the guys who coated horses with stripes). Zebras have shorter coats than other horses because they live in hotter weather, and some wild horses have mild stripes on their legs.

Presumably the reason we don’t have striped impala is they have their own cat defenses … and maybe don’t feel the flies as much?!

Hi Alex,
Thanks for this, some great info! I agree to a certain extent on the confusing pattern theory, and I”m fairly confident that the stripe evolution was a result of multiple benefits that reinforced them, rather than a single reason…

Perhaps it’s one of nature’s mysteries that is best left to be discussed and/or debated around the campfire, holding a beer, gin and tonic or a glass of wine. … thanks for the bit of humor on Halloween!

James, wonderful blog – I don’t know why zebras have stripes

Perhaps there IS no reason and doesn’t need to be! Just as 2 people don’t look the same, perhaps the stripes are nothing more than a characteristic that helps zebras identify each other! I surely don’t know but it makes for an interesting discussion!

Or perhaps it is exactly that.. you are known by your stripes!

Digital Ranger

I suspect that most Zebra are killed in the pitch dark by Lions. It could be that Zebra could get away without stripes given any available light. A fair analysis of the camouflage theory might have to take account of typical light conditions afoot when kills are made. Not that stripes prevent Zebra from being killed in the pitch dark but that it
could be the only time when it makes a difference. Ok – my own wild pet theory. : )
I think all the theories have good merit.

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