Why Does the Zebra Have the Stripes?

Zebra on a waterhole

The skin of the zebra is one of the most popular trophies that hunters bring home from African safaris. Whether you use it as a carpet on the wall or a rug on the floor, or make a more original taxidermy out of it, the striking black-and-white skin can’t help but stir your curiosity. The old question “Is zebra white with black stripes or black with white stripes?” has been positively answered. Zebra embryos start out black (or brown), and the white color appears later, so zebra is black with white stripes. But why do they need the stripes in the first place? This question is still open.  

The original theory was that zebra need the stripes as camouflage. Many other creatures in Africa, including kudu and nyala, have vertical stripes that help them blend in with the bush and tall grass. But this explanation does not explain zebra stripes. Unlike kudu and nyala, zebras stick to wide open places, and they don’t rely on “hide” strategy to escape predators. The moment they suspect a predator might be approaching is the moment when they flee. There’s no need for camouflage if you don’t hide!

Finally, some researchers who tried to look at zebra through the eyes of a lion found out that the feline vision can identify the stripes only at a very close range – much closer than the typical distance at which the cats begin to stalk their prey. If the cats can see a zebra but can’t see its stripes, than stripes don’t help to escape a lion’s attention. However, there’s another variant of the camouflage theory. It is supposed that when zebras are on the move, the motion of the stripes creates a wagon-wheel optical illusion. This distorts the predators’ vision, prevents them from accurately judging the distance and speed of their target, and makes them miss as they leap or strike.

Zebras escapimg a hunter

Missing a zebra – for a human predator – is perhaps easier than missing any other “plains game” species. Zebra live on the wide open places, and are usually more difficult to stalk than an average antelope. Their inclination to flee at the first sign of danger, rather than freeze and hope the predator will not see them, makes the approach even more challenging. The bottom line is, if you’re stalking a zebra, you ought to be prepared for a quick long shot, and long shots on windy African planes can be quite a task.

Yet another version of the camouflage theory suggests that the zebra developed the stripes to escape from bloodsucking flies, most notably tsetse flies. The tsetse fly was a plague for early African explorers of all nations (until the European colonial period, the southern border of the tsetse range was the northern border of Islamic influence) because it carries a disease that is absolutely lethal for horses. Zebras, however, even though they’re very near horses, do not seem to be affected. The original idea was that zebras had immunity, but it was later discovered that the tsetse flies simply don’t bite them. Presumably, because the stripes break the animal’s silhouette so that the fly does not’ recognize the zebra as something biteable.

Speaking of bites, zebras are a staple food for lions, crocodiles, and other African predators – but not always for humans. In many cultures, especially European, there’s a taboo on eating horseflesh: reflection, perhaps, of the value that horses had for agricultural communities. Consequently, many hunters would not want to try a zebra. But those who do often report that it’s some of the tastiest flesh they’ve ever eaten. If you happen to harvest a zebra, don’t miss a chance to ask the camp cook to make a few zebra steaks and form your own conclusion on the taste.  Read more about what people can and can’t (or shouldn’t) eat.

Zebra head

Another function of the stripes is the fact that they are unique not only for each subspecies, but also for each individual. It is suggested that zebras use stripes to identify members of their group and tell them from strangers. Zebras are highly social animals. They typically live in small herds, either made of bachelor males, or a harem herd with one stallion and a number of mares. Zebras are not territorial and their grazing areas often overlap, but the stallion protects his herd from predators and other stallions with much zeal and aggression. Once a stallion covers a mare, she will stick with him till death dost they part, but adding a mare to one’s harem will require winning quite a number of fights.

Social structure is one of the most marked difference between plains zebras and mountain zebras. Harem and bachelor groups of plains zebra often merge together to form herds that may number thousands of animals. These herds make a spectacular sight, especially during migration. Plains zebras often migrate, following water and fresh grass, while the mountain zebras typically stick to the same habitat year round, and don’t group together. For this reason mountain zebras are considered to be harder to hunt than plains zebras.

Zebras depend on water and don’t usually venture more than 30 km from the nearest waterhole. For millions of years native hunters waited for them as they came to drink. So did some early European hunters, who found it hard to stalk a zebra within the range of their muzzleloading guns. Today, waiting from a blind over a waterhole is the hunting method most preferred by bowhunters.

Hartmann's ZebraYet another function of the zebra stripes – from the human point of view – is that they help to tell different kind of zebras apart. The plains zebra usually has a black stripe running along its spine to the tail, while with the mountain zebra the vertical white stripes meet at the top, and the belly is usually fully white. Other differences between mountains and plains zebra include the dewlap, that the mountain zebra has and the plains zebra doesn’t, and the body size: the plains zebra is bigger than mountains zebra, but has relatively shorter legs. In addition to the mountains and plains zebra, there’s another species, the bigger and uniquely striped Gravy’s zebra. This species is endangered and hunting it is forbidden.

Two subspecies of mountain zebra, and six of plains zebra, are currently recognized. The subspecies of mountain zebra are Cape Mountain zebra and Hartmann’s zebra. The Cape mountain zebra has more black than white in its color. Hartmann’s zebra has the lighter stripes that are more like very light brown than pure white, and is therefore sometimes called golden.

The subspecies of the plains zebra are also distinguished mostly by the shape of the stripes. The East African subspecies have bold, pure black and pure white stripes. Burchell’s zebra usually have lighter-colored “ghost” stripes between major bold stripes, and in Chapman’s zebra the “ghost” stripes are even more pronounced, so that the hump of the animal looks more white-brown than black.   

Burchell's zebra

The pattern of stripes in plains zebra changes predictably according to the temperature the animals may be exposed to, which made some researchers conclude that the real reason for their existence may be related to thermoregulation. Temperature and climate also have an important part in the decision when to schedule a safari for a zebra. Most zebras population don’t have a definite rut period, so this factor is not too important. While hunting in countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe may be open all year, the months of December and January are usually too hot for comfort. It is believed that the best time for zebra hunting is the end of the dry period, in August to September and even October, but any time from March to October is good.

Whether you should go hunting the darker Cape Mountain zebra in South Africa, the Hartmann’s zebra in Namibia, the unique Chapman’s zebra in Mozambique, or the bold striped eastern variety in Tanzania, zebra hunting offers a unique challenge and a different edge to your plains game safari. No matter what type of taxidermy you’ll choose for your trophy (read more about your options here) it will be a constant reminder of the experience – and an endless inspiration to ask more questions about the enigmatic Africa.

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