When you think of zebras, the first thing that comes to mind is their striking stripes. It’s their most recognizable trait, that has been a source of fascination for ages. But have you ever wondered why zebras have such a distinctive look? Is there any reason for their immediately identifiable coats?
Well, for a long time, scientists thought that the zebra stripes acted as camouflage, making it difficult for predators to single out one animal from the herd. But there’s not much evidence to support that theory. It’s possible that it works this way, but that’s just a best guess; no experiments have tested the theory rigorously.
However, there is evidence that zebra stripes serve a very different purpose: repelling bloodsucking horseflies. These pests are not only annoying to zebras but can also carry dangerous germs that could harm a herd.
Scientists studying horses found that the darker the coat, the more horseflies it attracted. So, the scientists began to investigate if zebra stripes could be an adaptation to keep away as many flies as possible.
The researchers headed to a fly-infested horse farm near Budapest to test their theory. They assumed that fully white surfaces would attract the least flies, and a black coat would attract the most, while a variegated black-and-white pattern would be somewhere in between. But they were wrong. The striped surfaces attracted the fewest flies of all.
To take it further, they tested stripe patterns of varying widths. And what they found was that the pattern that most closely resembled the stripes on an actual zebra hide was least attractive to flies overall. Although the researchers couldn’t be certain why the stripes had this effect, they thought it might have to do with the orientation of light waves that reflect off a zebra’s skin versus the orientation that attracts horseflies.
While the stripes may serve other purposes for zebras, such as camouflage or communication, the scientists who conducted the research (published in 2012 in the Journal of Experimental Biology) believe that the primary evolutionary reason behind zebra stripes is pest repelling.
No one has yet tested whether some other pattern, like polka dots or argyle, could be even more effective against flies. But for now, it seems like the stripes are doing their job of keeping zebras free from pesky and potentially harmful horseflies.
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