Published: Sat, February 23, 2019
Science | By Michele Flores

Research reveals why the zebra got its stripes

Research reveals why the zebra got its stripes

Now a group of researchers from the University of Bristol and University of California, Davis believe they have uncovered evidence which suggests zebras have stripes to deter blood-sucking insects and other parasites. Just as before, when horses wore coats with striped patterns, they experienced fewer horse fly landings. The experiments were conducted to better understand how the stripes manipulate the behavior of biting flies as they attempt to land on the animal.

Previous studies have shown that bugs don't bite zebras at the same rate at which they attack horses, but it was unclear why that discrepancy existed. The zebra tail swishing, and at times running, means flies that land on zebras are tossed off more quickly. "So when you see these bold patterns like on a giraffe or zebra, as a biologist you say, Why?"

Dr Martin How, co-author of the research from the University of Bristol, said: "The flies seemed to be behaving relatively naturally around both [zebras and horses], until it comes to landing".

Scientists have proposed more than a dozen ideas to explain why zebras evolved stripes. Similarly as previously, when horses wore coats with striped examples, they encountered fewer horse fly landings contrasted with when they wore single-color coats.

The researchers videoed horse flies as they tried to prey on captive zebras and domestic horses at a livery in North Somerset, England.

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They studied photos and video footage of zebras to test the theory, which suggested the markings make optical illusions so it's hard for predators to focus on individual animals.

"Once they get close to the zebras, however, they tend to fly past or bump into them", said Caro, a professor in his university's Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology. Horses, on the other hand, primarily twitch and occasionally swish to ward off flies. However, their analysis also showed differences in flies' approach speeds between horses and zebras. The zebra swished tails nearly continuously to ward off flies, while horses primarily twitch and occasionally swish tails to ward off flies.

The objective of zebra stripes has always been a mystery. The team dressed the horses and zebras sequentially in black, white, and then black and white striped coats.

In Africa where zebras are native, horse flies carry risky debilitating diseases such as trypanosomiasis and African horse sickness which cause wasting and often death.

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