Zebras are very popular in Western culture. As the somewhat more exotic alternative to a horse; the comic book character Sheena, Queen of the Jungle rides a zebra. The film Racing Stripes is about a captive zebra who ends up being raced against horses and in the film Fantasia, two centaurs are depicted being half human and half zebra, instead of the typical half human and half horse. In animated movies like Khumba, The Lion King and the Madagascar series, zebras have become favourite characters.
What do we know about Zebras?
The plains zebra (Equus quagga, formerly Equus burchellii), are also known as the common zebra and are the most common and geographically widespread species of zebra that can be found throughout south and eastern Africa, south of the Sahara. The plain zebra’s preferred habitat is generally, but not exclusively, treeless grasslands and savanna woodlands, both tropical and temperate. They tend to avoid deserts, dense rainforest, and permanent wetlands. Zebras are preyed upon by lions, spotted hyenas and Nile crocodiles, to a lesser extend leopard, cheetahs and African wild dogs have been noted to hunt zebras.
The plains zebra remains common in game reserves but is threatened by human activities such as hunting for its meat and hide, as well as farming on much of its natural habitat with populations in most countries on sharp declined. As of 2016, the plains zebra is classified as near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The Swahili name for zebras is Punda milia from punda (“donkey”) + milia (“stripes”), literally “striped donkey”.
The plains zebra stands at a height of ±1.3 meters with a tail length of ±50 cm and they weigh between 227-325 kg. Their maximum lifespan (in captivity) has been recorded as 40+ years.
Plains zebras are nomadic and non-territorial, home ranges vary from 30 to 600 square kilometers depending on the area and whether the population is migratory. They are most active during the day and spend most of their time feeding. Other activities include dust bathing, rubbing, drinking and intermittent resting for short periods. At night, zebras rest except when threatened by predators. They may rest or sleep laying down, while one individual keeps guard
How Do Zebras Get Their Stripes?
Encountering a herd of Zebras can be one of South Africa’s most iconic experiences. These beautiful animals stand out from the grass, as a mass of black and white stripes framed against the wilderness.
Underneath these black and white stripes though, zebras look just like horses. They have black tan skin and it’s only their fur that is striped. Compared to other species, the plains zebra has broader stripes.
Zebras start with white fur and special skin cells transfer the black pigmentation from their skin, therefore making stripes. This is a similar process to other African mammals. The African cheetah for example, only have spots on their fur and all giraffes have the same light tan, yet every giraffe species has different patterns on its coat. If you observe foals, young zebras do not have black and white stripes (much like Dalmatians), but soft brown markings instead. Basically, skin pigmentation only fully transfers when the zebra reaches 18-24 months.
Interestingly tigers, not from Africa, have striped skin.
Skin pigmentation can explain how each zebra gets its stripes, but how did they evolve to have stripes in the first place?
A story from the San people from the Namibian Kalahari Desert.
Long ago, when animals were still new in Africa, the weather was very hot, and what little water there was remained in a few pools and pans. One of these remaining water pools was guarded by a boisterous baboon, who claimed that he was the ‘lord of the water’ and forbade anyone from drinking at his pool.
One fine day when a zebra and his son came down to have a drink of water, the baboon, who was sitting by his fire next to the waterhole, jumped up and barked in a loud voice. ‘Go away, intruders. This is my pool, and I am the lord of the water.’ ‘The water is for everyone, not just for you, monkey-face,’ The zebra’s son shouted back.
‘If you want some of the water, you must fight for it,’ returned the baboon in a fine fury, and in a moment the two were locked in combat.
Back and forth they went fighting, raising a huge cloud of dust, until with a mighty kick, the zebra sent the baboon flying high up among the rocks of the cliff behind them. The baboon landed with a smack on his seat, taking all the hair clean off, and to this very day, he still carries the bare patch where he landed.
The tired and bruised young zebra, not looking where he was going, staggered back through the baboon’s fire, which scorched him, leaving black burn stripes across his white fur. The shock of being burned sent the zebra galloping away to the savannah plains, where he has stayed ever since. The zebra’s fur would never be plain white again.
The baboon and his family, however, remain high up among the rocks where they bark defiance at all strangers, and when they walk around, they still hold up their tails to ease the sore rock-burn of their bald patched bottoms.
Zebra Stripes – the Facts or Theories
People have been talking about zebra stripes for over a hundred years and while scientists still debate the exact origins and functions of zebra stripes, their recent efforts have focused more closely on three possibilities: protection from biting flies, thermoregulation, and protection from predators.
African wildlife is often surrounded by magic and mystery, so instead of trying to understand the uniqueness of zebra stripes, just admire these extraordinary animals and their splendour. Whether zebra stripes confuse predators or not – they continue to confuse (and amaze) humans whenever they meet.