Why do zebras have stripes?

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The coat patterns of African animals are an interesting thing to see on any South African safari and the rangers of Thornybush Collection love filling our guests in on how all the different markings fit in in the wild. However, when it comes to the zebra, it's a different story.


While most animals blend inconspicuously into their bushveld environment, the black and white stripes of the zebra give this animal a distinct 'look at me' appearance among the muted tones of the African bushveld.

The thin white stripes on the grey pelt of the kudu, for example, are highly effective in disguising this 'grey ghost' of the thornveld. The zebra though, is boldly streaked with the single colour one should not wear while trying to blend in on safari – white.

Cutting-edge camouflage it is not

While many believe that there must be another explanation for this equine's distinctive appearance, conservationists and scientists are still not convinced as to the reasons for this unique colouration; with a number of theories doing the rounds.

Although zebras are easily noticeable in broad daylight, their stripes do offer a feint disguise during twilight. Appearing as a nondescript grey from a distance, they also match the muddy surroundings of the waterhole at drinks time when they are most at risk.

It is also thought that these same stripes, when seen en masse, may confuse predators – leaving them wondering where to grab first during a chase.

Another idea is that the zebras are able to recognise each other from their unique pattern of stripes, which helps them to stick with the right crowd during a skirmish.

Black attracts heat, while white repels it. This theory suggests that cooling air currents may be continually wafting over the zebra's skin, helping to reduce body temperature. An idea that comes from the fact that zebras in warmer areas have more stripes than their chilled-out peers.

The longest standing theory is that the stripes serve to repel disease-carrying flies such as the tsetse fly. Studies show that these insects will always land on a solidly coloured object rather than a striped one. With death being the outcome of some insect-borne ailments such as the African horse-sickness, trading camouflage for bug-repellent is a small price to pay for these equines.

Lastly, San legend has it that the zebra earned its stripes during a quarrel with Baboon at the waterhole, when it accidentally ran through the primate's campfire – searing its skin for all eternity.

Which theory do you like best?

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Tuesday, 17 October 2017