In the 1870s Charles Darwin and biologist Alfred Russel Wallace debated the hows and whys of zebra stripes. We’re a bit closer to answering those questions today.
It’s now generally recognised that zebras are black with white stripes (the areas that lack pigmentation) although most of us probably aren’t bothered either way. At Marula Lodge, we’re more likely to remember the various collective names for them; a dazzle, a zeal, a cohort or a herd.
The Crawshay’s zebra of South Luangwa is a distinct sub-species of the plains zebra and endemic to the park. It has thin, dense stripes which extend round the underbelly and down to the hooves. Unlike other species there is no hint of a shadow which makes them particularly good subjects for photography.
So why do zebras have stripes?
There are five hypotheses as to why the zebra has stripes. Studies in the last couple of years have provided more possible explanations, although scientific research is still needed.
You’d think zebras would stick out like a sore thumb in their natural habitat but, particularly in the green season, it’s quite easy to miss them. Their vertical stripes blend in with the grass. Whether or not this is effective camouflage is debatable because…
2. Confusing predators
Research published in 2016 rejects the theory that the stripes confuse predators because by the time they are visible, predators would already have seen and smelled the zebra. Humans can distinguish the stripes at greater distances than predators.
3. Pest control
The stripes apparently disrupt the vision of disease-carrying biting flies so they don’t like landing on zebras although the research (2014) that supports this has not been tested in the field.
4. Social interaction
The stripes are like fingerprints, each one unique. They supposedly make identification easier.
5. Cooling system
Zebras in warmer places have more stripes. Because their digestion is not very efficient they spend a lot of time grazing in the open in the midday sun. When air hits the zebra’s back it generates small scale breezes as the light and dark stripes heat up at different rates. This helps keep the skin cool.
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