Why Do Zebras Have Black and White Stripes?

Why do zebras have black and white stripes, and what are the functions of zebra stripes? People began to debate this question 120 years ago. Until now, there hasn’t been a clear answer. In fact, zebras are pure black at the early stage of embryonic development, and at late stage of embryonic development, the production of dark pigmentation is suppressed, and white stripes appear. Each zebra’s black and white stripes are subtly different, like their own natural bar codes.

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Darwin wanted to know what the bar codes were for. A theory that was popular in the 19th century and is still popular today is that zebras evolved striped coats to hide in tall shrubs. However, Darwin stressed: “In the open plains of South Africa, black and white stripes do nothing to protect them.”

More recently, biologists have observed that zebras don’t try to stay still to hide themselves when they encounter a predator. In his book Animal Watching: A Field Guide to Animal Behavior, zoologist Desmond Morris says: “Compared to many ungulate animals on the plains of Africa, zebras are obviously more mobile and noisy and never want to disguise themselves.”

animatronic zebra

Darwin suggested that zebras developed their unique stripes in order to get to know each other, especially during courtship, which is important for male and female zebras. “A female zebra will not accept the advances of a male donkey unless the male donkey is painted with stripes to look like a zebra,” Darwin wrote.

Martin How of the University of Queensland, Australia, agrees that stripes have a clear social function. “However, it is also possible that the stripes appeared for other purposes and that social functions came later.” How claims he has unpublished evidence that zebras evolved stripes to confuse predators and give them the crucial time to escape. He also said that zebra stripes create a visual illusion that can confuse predators. This disorienting effect is especially powerful when these animals move in groups.

animatronic zebra 1

Other ideas suggest that stripes can create visual illusions that make zebras appear larger than they really are. It’s also possible that the stripes help zebras regulate their body temperature. But there is little evidence to support these theories, so the evolutionary explanation for zebras’ black and white stripes remains a mystery.

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