Why Do Zebras Have Stripes?By Gerry Bishop
The answers to this and other questions about zebras may surprise you!
For a long time, people have been curious about the striped patterns on zebras. And scientists have been trying to come up with explanations: Maybe stripes help zebras hide in tall grasses by breaking up the outlines of their bodies. Or maybe when a group of zebras runs, stripes make it hard for an enemy to pick out a single animal.
Now, some scientists have thought of another reason, and it has to do with biting, blood-sucking, disease-spreading flies! In their labs, scientists discovered that these pests don’t like landing on striped surfaces. So maybe a zebra’s stripes help to keep nasty flies away! To be certain, scientists will have to study how flies behave in the wild with real zebras.
DO ALL ZEBRAS HAVE THE SAME STRIPES?
Take a good look at the four plains zebras shown in the photo above. Do you see how each one’s stripes are slightly different? Scientists say that no two individual zebras have stripes that are exactly alike—just as no two persons have identical fingerprints.
WHERE DO ZEBRAS LIVE?
All zebras live in Africa (see map above). Grévy’s (GRAY-veez) zebras can survive on very little water and tend to live mostly in desert-like places. Plains zebras need more water to survive, so they live where it rains more often. Mountain zebras live mostly in hilly, rocky places.
DO ZEBRAS LIVE WITH OTHER ANIMALS?
Look at the photo at top left above, and you’ll see for yourself. Plains zebras often hang out with giraffes, ostriches, and other animals. But the ones shown here are with a herd of wildebeests. By hanging out together, zebras and wildebeests help each other in different ways. For example, zebras eat the tall, tough parts of grasses. And that helps the wildebeests reach the softer, juicier parts of the grass near the ground. Zebras and wildebeests both look out for danger, so everyone stays safer.
WHAT SOUNDS DO ZEBRAS MAKE?
One kind of zebra call is a bark. Zebras bark to greet each other or to get other zebras’ attention. A single bark sounds like a room full of small dogs, all yipping at the same time!
Another zebra call is a bray, which starts out as a deep growl and ends up sounding like a squealing pig. Zebras bray when calling to a possible mate or when angry.
DO ZEBRAS TAKE BATHS?
Well, they don’t bathe with water. Instead, they roll in dry, dusty dirt! The rolling action pushes tiny pieces of sand and soil through the zebra’s coat. This helps rub off dead skin and remove ticks, biting insects, and other pests. Zebras also help keep each other clean. They stand side by side and nibble the dirt and pests from one another’s coats.
DO ZEBRAS EVER GET INTO FIGHTS?
Zebras don’t fight with each other very often. When they do, the fights usually involve stallions (males) fighting over mares (females). For plains and mountain zebra stallions, the story is pretty much the same: A stallion lives with a group of mares called a harem. If another stallion comes too close, a battle may break out. The stallions will bite and kick each other and even pin each other to the ground. The mares may then choose to go with the winner.
For Grévy’s zebras, the story is a bit different: A Grévy’s stallion claims a place of his own called a territory. When a mare shows up, the two might mate. But if another stallion comes by, there could be a fight. The winner keeps or takes over the territory—and a chance to mate with any mares that come by.
HOW MANY BABIES DO ZEBRAS HAVE?
A zebra mare has only one foal (baby) at a time, and it may stay with her for up to three years. As a mare gives birth, she and her foal are in great danger from predators. But only about 15 minutes after birth, the little one is on its feet. And in an hour, it’s walking and even running.
DO ZEBRAS HAVE ANY ENEMIES?
Full-grown zebras are big, fast, and powerful. But so are lions—and that makes them the zebras’ biggest threat. Hyenas, leopards, and African wild dogs can also catch and bring down an adult zebra. But they have a much easier time going after the foals.
Whatever the predator, zebras don’t give up without a fight. Their kicks are so mighty that they can injure or even kill a lion.
ARE ZEBRAS IN DANGER OF BECOMING EXTINCT?
There are more than 500,000 plains zebras—far more than there are of the other two species. But in some places, the numbers of plains zebras are falling. Why? Because people hunt them for their beautiful skins and for meat. They also let their cattle eat the grasses that zebras need to survive. And sometimes their fences block zebras from reaching water and food.
There are about 25,000 mountain zebras, and their numbers are now on the rise. The Grévy’s is the only species that’s in real trouble: There are so few (about 2,700) that they are in danger of becoming extinct.
The good news is that people are exploring ways to protect zebras and their habitats. Some people are helping local farmers find ways to live that are less harmful to zebras. Other people are sharing new ideas with local village children and their parents.
With luck and lots of hard work, zebras will be with us for a very long time.
Thanks to Dr. Sarah King, of Colorado State University and the IUCN/SSC Equid Specialist Group, for helping with this story.
“Why Do Zebras Have Stripes?” appears in the April 2018 issue of Ranger Rick magazine.
(Click on each image above for a closer view of the story.)