Zebras are intriguing to look at, to watch and to contemplate. Their body colouration demands question.
Let’s try to unravel the mystery of zebra stripes, and unwind the colour scheme to see if we can make any sense of why a zebra has stripes.
There are four schools of thought for zebra stripes!
The first of these is that stripes make the zebra look bigger, just like my striped jersey highlights my recent social indulgences.
Zebra stripes are said to act as a mishmash zigzag of confusing colour when many zebras run away together, or as a cryptic disguise for lions and hyenas who cannot tell the difference between grass and zebras, and of course, black and white stripes are hard to see at night. These theories all have something to do with avoiding hungry predators.
The second school of thought is that the patterns of individual zebras are unique to each zebra and therefore must play a social role. Foals imprinting on mom, group bonding and others like showing off fitness.
The third school of thought talks about thermoregulatory mechanisms. A quick definition is:
The anatomical system that controls the body temperature; includes the temperature end-organs in the skin, the afferent nerves, the thalamus and hypothalamus, vasodilatation, respiratory centre, the sweat glands, the muscular system and the hormonal and enzymic systems involved in the calorigenic metabolism of, stored fat and protein.
(Saunders Comprehensive Veterinary Dictionary, 3 ed. © 2007 Elsevier, Inc.)
This theory is all about little miniscule winds being created over temperature fluctuations over the black and white stripes, or even a variety of different fatty storage holds under the opposing colour scheme.
The fourth and final school of thought (another scientific breakthrough?) is that due to some evolutionary convergence, or learning – zebras quickly (it took 65 million years) learned that breaking up a dark or consistent pattern with stripes would be a great defence against biting flies! Scientific experiments with blotches and patches painted on boards apparently signalled success. The flies, especially the horse flies were not as attracted to the disruptive colourations as they were to, let’s say buffalo.
If all four theories shared a great level of reality we would end up with an animal that could either stand still in the grass and cryptically avoid detection from a passing lion, or run like hell with all the others to confuse a chasing lion, and then stop running again when it got dark. We would also end up with an animal that could identify social status, children or competition by merely checking out an individual’s pattern and, at the same time, maintain and manage a consistent temperature while avoiding Africa’s notorious horse flies.
What a winner!