How did the Zebra get its Stripes?

The Animal Folklore and the Science

These stunning African animals are iconic. They have featured in African folktales, fashion and they are also interesting scientifically. I hope you enjoy reading this article about the Zebras stripes.

How did the zebra get its stripes. A group of zebra with a surreal background.

The Folklore

In African Folklore we learn lessons from stories involving tricksters and animals. There are two stories in which it is explained why do Zebra have stripes.

The first fable is from African animal folklore told by the San/Bushmen of the Namibian Kalahari desert. 

When the earth was still new and the animals were just created there was a drought. Everywhere water was sparse and the pure white zebra made their way to the only source of water, a pool which was guarded by an arrogant baboon sitting by his fire.

He boomed at the animals "Go AWAY! I am Lord of the water, you may not drink from my pool".  One of the white zebra, a brave stallion replied "The water is for everyone, not just you, monkey-face!"

‘Oh yeah?’ replied the baboon. ‘Then you’ll have to fight me for it.’ as he rushed at the zebra. 

They had a fierce battle but with a great big kick the zebra sent the baboon high into the rocks of the cliff behind them and the baboon landed so hard on his bum that today it is still hairless!

Unfortunately the white zebra was dazed from all this and staggered into the baboons fire. Exhausted from the fight he didn't get up fast enough and he was left with black scorch marks on his white fur from the logs in the fire. And this is why the zebra has stripes! 

Shocked the zebra galloped away into the plains where they remain today, proudly wearing their stripes for having won the water for all animals. The baboon and his family remain high up amongst the rocks as defiant as ever barking at strangers with raised tails and bald bottoms!


Two striped zebra grazing by a watering hole. Photography by Sharon Sheehan of Sharasaur.comThe second fable comes from a South African legend that the creator of animals made all creatures the same. Eventually they became bored and the creator said he would help them out. So he spent many weeks making coats and horns of varying styles, shapes and sizes so that the animals could put them on and look different. Once completed he invited all the animals who were really excited. They rushed off eager to try them on...all except the lazy fat zebra! He LOVED his mealtimes and there was no way he was going to abandon his food. When he finally finished off he went to see the creator. The other animals were on their way home and looked so different now. 

Elephant had chosen a plain grey coat, but had a magnificent pair of tusks to set the outfit off. Lion had chosen a lovely sleek coat with a fine mane of hair around his neck. Rhino, being a bit short-sighted, had chosen a coat that was a bit too big for him, so it looked baggy, and the 2 horns he had picked out were different sizes. Now the zebra was excited to see what kind of coat and horns he could pick out and he started to walk faster. Alas he arrived to find there was just one coat left and no horns or any other ornaments. He was dismayed to see it was a flashy black and white striped one, the famous zebra striped pattern we see today. Today, you will rarely see a skinny zebra they wear their black and white coats while crossing plains and of course... they are still always hungry! 

The Science

So... how do zebra stripes work?
1) Thermoregulation

Do zebra stripes influence thermoregulation? The primary function of the stripes may be thermoregulation. 

Equids sweat to keep cool. Recently a surfactant equid protein called latherin has been discovered. This accelerates the movement of sweat away from the skin and allows evaporative cooling at the hair tips. It has been suggested by Alison and Steven Cobb that the abrupt temperature difference between the stripes causes chaotic air movement above the hair surface enhancing evaporative heat dissipation. They observed that the black stripes can separately raise, while the white remain flat.

2) Deterring Flies

Do zebra stripes repel mosquitoes?

Do zebra stripes repel flies? One of the most promising explanations: that the stripes deter biting flies. 

Horseflies carry lethal diseases such as trypanosomiasis, equine infectious anemia virus, parasitic filarial worm and even anthrax. There can be great swarms of horsefly causing an animal to lose up to 300 millilitres of blood a day.

Studies have shown that the stripes actually greatly reduce the number of flies. Researchers found that on black and brown horses there is horizontally polarised light which is attractive to horseflies. Although this should be true of the black stripes on a zebra, the more narrow they are then the less attracted the flies are. The narrow stripes confuse the light waves. 

3) Camouflage

So you may ask do zebra stripes confuse predators? The stripes could create “dazzle camouflage”. This may trick their predators vision making it hard to see individual zebra and therefore bring difficulties in prediction the direction in which they are moving. 

The stripes could also function as a signal to other grazing animals. Whenever I have seen zebra on safari, in the wild in their natural habitat I have witnessed how common it is to see gazelle and other grazing species herded with them.

Mixing herds can offer more protection against predators especially when your herd mate brings along a striking visual signal when there is danger.  

A zebra and a gazelle grazing by a watering hole. Photography by Sharon Sheehan,
4) Social
No two zebra have the exact same stripes. It is thought that this can help zebra foals and mothers identify each other. 
So if you have ever asked yourself are zebra stripes an adaptation I hope this has helped to answer your question. 
I hope you enjoyed this post with science and animal fables about how did the zebra get its stripes.
Now all that's left to know are zebra stripes black or white?

I'd love to hear from you!

If you have any stories or interesting facts on Zebra or other wildlife I would love to hear from you below in the comments! 

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Sharon Sheehan,

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