No black-and-white explanation for zebras’ coat pattern
The origin and purpose of zebra stripes have fascinated humans for a long time.
A popular folk tale from the Bushmen of Africa offers one theory. It explains that long ago, Africa was very hot with few watering holes, and one of the largest water sources was guarded by an arrogant baboon. On a very hot day, two white equines approached the watering hole and were told not to drink from it by the bossy baboon. One of the horse-like animals told the baboon that water was for everyone, but the baboon disagreed and said that they would have to fight him for a drink. After a struggle and a swift kick from the equine, the baboon landed hard on a pile of rocks, knocking out all the fur on his rear end (a trait that baboons still have today). As the exhausted equine got up from the scuffle, he stumbled through the baboon’s campfire, scorching him with black stripes on his white coat. The shock from the fire sent the equine running toward the savannah, where the zebras remain today, complete with their black stripes.
The modern world suggests that the question of stripe derivation is not so black and white. Biologists explain that it is likely that zebra stripes are both black and white. Some zebras have dark skin that causes their fur to be black and the striped patterns are white. Other zebras have a white underbelly with no black stripes, which may mean that the stripes are black and the fur is white. Whatever the case, the stripes are very important to zebras for a variety of reasons.
The most commonly heard justification for zebra stripes is their ability to provide camouflage in the tall savannah grasses. The stripes are also thought to be a defense, confusing predators by making it hard to pick one zebra out of a group. Another function of stripes may be their ability to alter a predator’s judgment with regard to distance and speed.
Humans took a cue from the zebra’s stripes and tried to employ a similar pattern on ships during World War I. The patterns were designed to confuse enemies and their range-finding capabilities.
Most recently, biologists tested a theory that the stripes were most helpful in repelling insects, particularly biting flies. As it turns out, biting flies avoid landing on striped surfaces, making a zebra’s coat an exceptional example of fly repellent.
The Pueblo Zoo is home to two female Grevy’s zebras — Amira and Zena. They are both recent additions to the zoo, Amira from Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, Ariz., and Zena from the Denver Zoo. They share an exhibit with the male ostrich and three new Speke’s gazelles in the African Plains section.