The uniqueness of zebra stripes – Pattern and facts

Zebra in black and white - arguing

Zebras are remarkable animals, a sweet look-alike mix between a horse and donkey. Their black and white pajamas are highly recognizable and make them stand out in the African savannah.

Did you know that every zebra has unique stripes?

The zebra stripes pattern is like human fingerprints and no two are ever the same.

But why do zebras have such unique stripes? And how do zebras get stripes when horses do not?

Even today, we don’t have a definitive answer to these questions.

This article discusses all the hypotheses and mysteries. So you can form your own opinion on the uniqueness of zebra stripes.

Quick Zebra Facts

Zebra with impeccable "haircut"

Swahili name: Punda milia.

Scientific name: Equus burchellii (Plains/Burchell’s Zebra), Equus grevyi (Grevy’s Zebra), and Equus zebra (Mountain Zebra).

Shoulder height: 1.3 m.

Mass: 227-325 kg.

Lifespan: 40+ years (in captivity).

Habitat: From woodlands to open plains.

Diet: Essentially grazers, though they may occasionally browse. Zebras also dig for rhizomes or roots.

Feces: Elongated shape, similar to warthog droppings.

Gestation: 12-13 months.

How Do Zebras Get Their Stripes?

Zebra face zoomed in

Encountering a zebra herd is one of Africa’s most iconic experiences. These magnificent mammals stand out from the grass, a mass of black and white stripes framed against the wilderness.

But underneath these black and white stripes, zebras look just like horses.

They have black tan skin.

It is only their fur that is striped.

Zebras start with white fur. Special skin cells transfer the black pigmentation from their skin, therefore making stripes.

This is a similar process to other African mammals. African cheetahs only have spots on their fur, but tigers (not from Africa) have striped skin. All giraffes have the same light tan, yet every giraffe species has different patterns on its coat.

You can observe this in foals. Young zebras do not have black and white stripes, but soft brown markings instead. Basically, the skin pigmentation only fully transfers when the zebra reaches 18-24 months.

Zebras split from horses 3 million years ago. The two species remain so similar that they can breed together.

Skin pigmentation can explain how each zebra gets its stripes. But how did they evolve to have stripes in the first place?

Zebra patterns – a story from the San of the Kalahari

San rock petroglyphs in Twyfelfontein, Namibia

We could go into a rich scientific explanation concerning evolution, including the theory that striped horses appeared more than once throughout mammal history.

However, the best explanation is a tale told around the campfire by the San bushmen of Namibia’s Kalahari. After all, scientists can claim all they want, but it is the San who have spent their lives living side by side with zebras.

A long long time ago, deep in the Kalahari, a boisterous baboon guarded the last remaining waterhole. He said he was the lord of the water and forbade every other animal from drinking.

A thirsty pure white zebra decided to fight the baboon so his herd could drink. With one mighty kick, he sent the baboon flying onto the rocks. The baboon landed on his bum with such vigor it ripped the hair clean off. Baboons have had bald bums ever since!

The victorious zebra was too exhausted to think about his victory and fell backward over the baboon’s fire. This scorched him with black burn stripes.

The shock of the burn sent him galloping onto the savannah, where the zebra would stay forever. The baboon stayed high on the rocks and continued to be boisterous but could only bark at strangers from up high.

Zebra Stripes Facts – Different Species and Their Stripes

Before considering different scientific theories, it’s important to understand that not all zebras are the same.

There are 3 different zebra species and each of these has unique stripe variations.

Plains zebras (also called “Burchell’s zebra”) are the most numerous. They live in huge numbers across East and Southern Africa, including more than 300 000 that take part in the great wildebeest migration through Serengeti National Park.

Plains zebra photographed at Nxai Pan

Mountain zebras are a vulnerable species living on the hot mountain rocks of Southern Africa. They are the smallest zebra species and have much narrower stripes.

Cape mountain zebra in rocky area

Grevy’s zebras are one of the rarest sights on an African safari. Now confined to small areas of Tanzania and Kenya, these are the largest zebra and have the most tightly packed stripes. Their body shapes resemble a mule, rather than a horse.

Grevy’s zebra have the most tightly packed stripes

Do all zebras have stripes?

While no two zebras have identical stripes, all zebra species do indeed have stripes.

The zebra stripe patterns are, however, different between these three types. Mountain and plains zebras have stripes all over their bodies. Grevy’s zebra lack stripes on their underbelly.

Why Do Zebras Have Stripes – The Theories

Frightened zebra herd fleeing from a waterhole

Five compelling theories have been put forward and each does have more scientific street cred than the San tale. Still, none of these theories have been conclusively proven.

Ultimately, we still do not know why. So make up your own mind.

Thermoregulation

Zebra walking through a local waterhole in Etosha

One of the first theories was that unique stripes help to keep a zebra cool.

Black and white absorb sunlight differently. When air hits the black stripes it flows faster, because black absorbs heat. Then the air slows down when it reaches the white stripes.

This creates air currents. When these currents collide they form swirls of air, just like a fan. So, the stripes are a form of thermoregulation.

A favorite proverb says that a leopard cannot change its spots. Well, zebras may be able to change their stripes. Studies have shown that plains zebras have wider and more spaced out stripes the further south in Africa they are found.

The argument is that the tighter the stripes, the greater the need to cool down and the faster the natural fan works.

It is true that zebras living around the equator have the closest stripes. But what about mountain zebras living in the Cape with jam-packed stripes?

Some researchers have discredited this thermoregulation theory. Instead of studying wild zebra, they wrapped zebra skins around oil barrels and studied the temperatures over four months.

Their conclusion was that zebra markings didn’t change the temperature in the barrel, so zebras don’t need stripes for thermoregulation.

How is that considered science? Better listen to the San instead!

To avoid tsetse flies

Zebra rolling in dust, scratching its back

Author Tim Caro wrote a whole book on zebra stripes. It painstakingly, and rather boringly, goes through all the evidence, before concluding why does a zebra have stripes.

The answer? That zebra stripes are a natural defense against biting tsetse flies.

Observations show that striping is most intense in areas where biting flies are most abundant. The theory is that tsetse flies want to land on a hide that is a single color, such as a wildebeest or buffalo.

Black and white stripes confuse the tsetse fly and camouflage the zebra. So, the zebra stripes are unique not as a defense against lions, but against the diseases brought by biting flies.

2019 research argues that when flies get close to a zebra they either fly over the stripes or crash-land.

But zebras also live in areas where there is no evidence of tsetse flies. If stripes are all that is needed, why don’t other animals such as wildebeest have them? And why do all zebras need unique stripes?

Social interaction and identification

One thing that zebras do not have in common is their stripes. Every single zebra in the world has its own pattern.

The answer to ‘why do zebras have different stripe patterns’ may be quite simple: unique zebra stripes are a means of identification.

Not much explanation is needed. One zebra can look at a herd and find its friends through visual identification.

Others have proposed that these unique stripes are also used for social purposes. Nobody is sure how this could work.

Maybe herds are made up of zebras with similar stripes? Or could the stripes be a means of impressing a mate?

Disruptive coloration to avoid predators

Zebra drinking at a local waterhole in Namibia

The classic hypothesis is that stripes are a form of camouflage. It was first put forward by Charles Darwin, somebody who knew a lot about animal evolution.

A 2016 study in the PLOS ONE journal discredits this theory, arguing that “by the time predators are close enough to register the stripes – and be tricked by them – they will have caught the zebra’s scent.”

However, the purpose of unique stripes is not classic camouflage. Instead, Darwin said that the stripes prevent predators from identifying an individual. They can see and smell the herds, but struggle to catch one.

Zebras typically huddle together in close-knit herds. This contrasts wildebeest herds, which are spread out over large distances.

Black and white is not a good camouflage for green grass. However, when the herd moves it causes something called motion blur. The black and white stripes coalesce into a single mass, making it difficult for predators to locate a target.

The patterns confuse and obscure. The stripes blend and overlap and flicker. It could be so confusing that a predator doesn’t even know which way the zebra herd is running.

Anyone who has been on an African safari, especially in the Serengeti National Park, can concur with this theory. When viewed from a distance, a herd of zebras appears to be a single mass of gray.

So how about Darwin’s theory?

Zebras are invisible at night

Plains zebra at night, being shone with a spotlight

Big cats mostly hunt at night. So do predators see unique stripes at night? The answer could be unexpected. According to one researcher, zebras turn invisible at night.

When tracking wildebeest in the Serengeti, Dr. Anthony Sinclair claims that wildebeest would suddenly disappear.

He could see wildebeest as black shapes against the pale grass. However, zebras have the exact same intensity of light as the background, as Sinclair explains in this video. The disappearing wildebeest were caused by zebras crossing their path.

Big cats have incredible eyesight so maybe the stripes are a means of re-balancing this disadvantage?

Could they be a means of camouflage after dark?

Why is the Zebra Stripe Pattern So Unique?

Zebra marching in cloud of dust

All these hypotheses have their pros and cons. There really is no definitive explanation. But there is another question that is yet to be even fully considered.

Why are zebra stripes unique? Why don’t all zebras have the same pattern of stripes?

Studies have proven how zebra stripes have evolved differently depending on where they live. But why?

The answer could be a combination of all the theories above. Unique stripes can certainly help identification. They could make an animal cooler. A variation in stripes would help create a more hazy motion blur.

Scientists may say that skin pigmentation occurs differently in every animal, so leopards have unique spots and zebra unique stripes.

There are so many mysteries in the world of African wildlife. Rather than try to understand the uniqueness of zebra stripes, let us simply admire these incredible animals and their beauty.

People can argue about whether zebra stripes confuse predators. What we know for certain, is that zebra stripes continue to confuse (and amaze) us.

If you’d like to see for yourself which of these theories are the most accurate, book an African safari today.

3 thoughts on “The uniqueness of zebra stripes – Pattern and facts”

  1. Great article with some good information!

    I could add my own theory for having the stripes…

    When we were in Tanzania, I made a pic from about 5-6 zebras standing next to each other & the sides turned to us. It’s quite hard to see where one zebra starts & where it ends & the next starts again.

    Perhaps that confuses a lion too when it attacks a group and suddenly there are more than it thought. The “one” (or 2 or 3) whole zebra, suddenly apart to many more. All jumping in different directions. Which one to focus on?

  2. I had no idea about zebra/wildebeest cavorting together, thanks, Michael! Makes perfect sense.

    They definitely have keen eyesight and hearing. They were often the first to notice us approaching and kept a greater distance between us than other animals.

    1. Hey Melissa, thanks so much for your feedback! Long time… 🙂

      Yes, they most definitely have keen eyesight, hearing, vicious kick and…bite! Click on the link, it’s quite remarkable!

      Love your theory Melvin, it surely must be confusing for predators! A little bit like the “Where’s Waldo” books, except it’s more like “Where’s My Meal” in this case! 😉

      Cheers!

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