Scientists try to answer the age-old question: when is a zebra not a zebra? When it’s a cow dressed up as one…

Quick Notes

  • The origin of zebra stripes have caused wonder in the scientific community for quite some time

  • Past theories have hypothesized the stripes were present to ward off predators or control the mammal’s temperature

  • After some recent scientific study, it was found the stripes may be a form of parasite resistance

Everyone knows the distinctive pattern of zebra stripes. The black and white pattern of this African mammal has been repeated on fashion prints, used in architectural design, and we even name pedestrian crossings ‘zebra crossings’ after the black and white formation. There’s no denying, the zebra has full ownership of the black and white stripe trend.

What science is now attempting to discover, however, is why these stripes exist in the first place. As entertaining as it is to imagine that the zebra wears its stripes simply as a bold fashion choice, it doesn’t take an enormous amount of critical thought to understand that that theory isn’t scientifically sound.

But how do you go about discovering why an animal looks the way that it does? How can you possibly try to answer the multitude of riddles that evolution presents in its creations? Well, when it comes to the science of how the zebra got its stripes, apparently it’s as simple as painting stripes on anything with hooves.

Camouflage? Temperature control? A bold act of fashion rebellion?

There have been multiple theories over time as to why the zebra may sport its stripes, but many of these theories have been based on the science applied to other animals. Could it be a tactic to ward off predators? Probably not, since the stripes actually make them stand out a great deal against the background of the African savannah.

Other, potentially more viable theories hypothesize that the zebra wears its stripes as a form of temperature regulation. It is widely understood that the color black absorbs more heat than white, so the stripes could actually be a way for the zebra to manage the unforgiving African heat.

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While the temperature theory certainly has legs (four of them to be precise), recent experiments have drawn a more convincing conclusion, even though reaching that conclusion was done through somewhat unconventional means.

Researchers at the University of Bristol and UC Davis, California, USA, may have uncovered the real reason once and for all, and how did they do it? Well, they dressed horses up as zebras, of course. Once the horses were sporting their dashing Halloween costumes, the researchers observed how their behavior altered and how their environment responded to them.

A rose by any other name, a hoofed animal by any other stripe

The result? A dramatic reduction in the amount of insect bites the horses suffered. The University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences recorded footage of both domestic horses and captive zebras at a facility in North Somerset, UK. They observed how horse flies then responded to both animals, and the results were pretty indicative.

Initially, the horse flies seemed to treat both mammals in the same way, but what gradually became apparent was that the flies found it much more difficult to land on the zebras than they did the horses. It is hypothesized that this is due to the stripe formations confusing the low-resolution eyesight of the horse flies, meaning they can’t get a good seat for their meal.

Cows experienced an extraordinary fifty percent reduction of insect bites when dressed up like zebras

The importance of this for zebras is the diseases that the blood-sucking flies of Africa often carry. While getting nibbled on by a horsefly in England probably isn’t a horse’s favorite activity, it doesn’t carry nearly the risk that a zebra would experience, which includes trypanosomiasis and African horse sickness.

So there you have it. Zebra stripes weren’t evolved into existence to ward off large predators like lions or hyenas, and they aren’t a form of temperature regulation. They aren’t even the result of several zebra meetings where they all decided they needed a brand new look. It’s all parasite evasion.

If there was any doubt left in your mind, leave it to Japan to clear that up, where they painted cows with black and white stripes and conclusively proved the same thing. Cows experienced an extraordinary fifty percent reduction of insect bites when dressed up like zebras. Maybe next time you travel to the vast continent of Africa, you should consider some hefty zebra print.

A deeper dive – Related reading on the 101

It isn’t just zebras that make for some startling photos; the entire animal kingdom has some tricks

Discovering the reason behind zebra stripes isn’t the only thing sparking scientific wonder recently

If you thought zebra stripes were wild, check out the patterns on these guys