15 surprising facts about the humble zebra

23 October 2017

From their smart stripes, to the power of their kicks and surprising turn of speed, behold the wonders of zebras.

Few animals are as familiar as the zebra, and their contrasting stripes make them an animal that stands out from the crowd. The zebra is much more than just a horse with stripes. Consider the following:

 

Black with white stripes

It was originally believed that zebras were white animals with black stripes, since some zebras have white underbellies. However, the animal’s background colour is in fact black and the stripes and bellies are white additions.

Standing out from the crowd

It is thought that the vertical stripes help zebra hide in long grass by disrupting their outline, but some experts argue that zebra predators do not see well at a distance, and will have smelt or heard the animal before seeing it at a distance. The stripes may confuse predators by motion dazzle - a group of zebras standing or moving together may appear as a large mass of flickering stripes, making it harder for a predator to pick out a single target.

In addition, studies have shown that the stripes make the zebra less attractive to flies.

Every zebra is unique

The striping pattern is unique to each individual zebra - like an equine fingerprint. It is not known if zebras can recognise one another by their stripes, although we do know that foals recognise their mothers by the pattern of their stripes, as well as by scent and call.

Each species of zebra has different types of stripes, varying in width and pattern distribution. The farther south on the African plains the zebra lives, the father apart its stripes will be - which might be to do with the cooler temperatures away from the equator.

Staying cool

A zebra’s stripy coat is thought to disperse more than 70 per cent of incoming heat, preventing the animal from overheating in the African sun. One study has shown that zebras have more stripes in hotter habitats. Note to self - try stripes in the summer!

Three species today

There are three species of zebra - the plains zebra, mountain zebra and the Grevy’s zebra, named for Jules Grevy, a 19th century French president who received one from Abyssinia as a gift.  The plains zebra is the most common and is distributed across much of southern and eastern Africa. The mountain zebra of southwest Africa is classed as vulnerable by the ICUN. The largest zebra, Grevy’s, is rather similar looking to a mule, with a long narrow head. This species is found in Ethiopia and northern Kenya and is the rarest of the family, being classed as endangered.

Humans are the biggest threat to zebra populations; hunting for skins and meat, and habitat destruction are to blame for their decline. The zebra will also often compete with livestock for forage and are subsequently culled.

One zebra has already become extinct

A subspecies of the plains zebra, the quagga, became extinct in the late 19th century because of excessive hunting by the Dutch in South Africa, who became frustrated with zebras competing with their cattle for forage. Only one quagga was ever photographed alive and only 23 skins are preserved today. The quagga was the first extinct animal to have its DNA analysed, and the Quagga Project is trying to recreate the hair coat pattern by selectively breeding Burchell’s zebras.

Zebra’s have never been domesticated

Unlike their closest equine cousins - horses and donkeys, zebras have never been truly domesticated. Eccentric zoologist Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868-1937), did train zebras to draw his carriage through London, but he knew that zebras would be unsuitable for riding and further domestication because of their unpredictable nature and tendency to panic under stress.

Captive zebras have been interbred

In captivity, crosses between zebra and non-zebra equines have produced distinct hybrids such as the zony, zorse and zeedonk.

Social butterfly

Zebras are highly social animals. Mountain and plains zebras live in groups known as harems - one male with a group of females and their foals. Bachelor males live alone or in bachelor herds until they are old enough to challenge a breeding stallion. When under attack, these zebras will cluster together with the foals in the centre, for protection, and the whole harem protects all the foals.

Grevy’s zebras do not have permanent social bonds - foals stay with their mothers, and adult males live alone or in bachelor groups.

For protection, zebra groups often come together in large herds, regularly mixing with other grazers such as wildebeest. As well as providing more eyes and ears to look out for danger, a large herd is confusing to a predator, making it harder to single out individual prey.

Speed demons

Zebras are very fast-moving animals, and can reach speeds of up to 65 kph when galloping across the plains. This is just fast enough to outpace predators such as lions, and they also have excellent endurance and a zigzagging gait which helps them to better evade predators. Foals can run with the herd within a few hours of birth.

Sleeping on the hoof

Like horses, zebras sleep standing up, and usually only when in the safety of a group. 

Heavy-weights

Zebras weigh anywhere from 400 to 850 pounds, depending on the species. The Grevy's zebra is the largest wild member of the horse family.

Age is just a number

In the wild, zebras usually live to be between 20 to 30 years old; they can live to the age of 40 in zoos.

The best form of defence - attack

A cornered zebra rears, kicks and bites in defence. There have been numerous recorded cases of zebras killing lions, generally by a swift kick to the head that, at the very least, breaks the jaw, resulting in the cat's eventual starvation.

Migration marvel

One of the most extraordinary phenomena in the natural world is the annual 1,800 mile migration of millions of zebra, blue wildebeest and other antelope between the Serengeti in Tanzania, and Kenya’s Masai Mara, in a constant search for food and water. During the zebras' annual migration, it is the responsibility of the oldest male in the harem to ensure that the group never strays too far from water.

Ancient horse-tigers

In Ancient Rome, Grevy’s zebra were trained to pull chariots at Roman circuses under the alias ‘hippotigris’ (‘horse-tiger’).

The stuff of legend

There are numerous African folk tales telling how the zebra got their stripes. According to the San of Namibia, the zebra was once all white, but during a fight with a baboon over a waterhole, the zebra fell into a fire, which left scorch marks all over its body.

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