Quirks & Quarks

Why the Zebra has Stripes

Zebra stripes may actually exist to discourage biting flies....

The debate among scientists about the purpose of stripes on the zebra has been going on for well over one hundred years. The popular theories have been camouflage, predator confusion, heat management, a social function, and a means of avoiding attack from biting flies. Dr. Tim Caro, a Wildlife Biologist from the University of California, Davis, was determined to solve the riddle. The geographic distribution of zebras and related species were mapped, then compared to the variables associated with each of the competing theories, most notably woodlands, predators and biting flies. The result was that the areas where biting flies are most prevalent matches the distribution of stripped zebras. In contrast, there was no such support for the other theories. Zebras' short hair and thin hide makes them more susceptible to disease-carrying flies. So they evolved stripes to avoid them. Why the flies avoid the stripes is still not known.

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