How a zebra's stripes make flies buzz off

Gwen Vasquez
February 22, 2019

Only five flies landed on the horses dressed in zebra coats during a 30-minute period, whereas more than 60 touched down on those in the solid black and solid white coats in the same time period.

"We showed that horse flies approach zebras and uniformly coloured horses at similar rates but that they fail to land on zebras - or striped horse coats - because they fail to decelerate properly, and fly past them or literally bump into them and bounce off", he said.

Well, it appears stripes make bad landing strips, bamboozling the fierce blood-sucking flies that try to feast on zebras and carry deadly diseases.

The study also showed stripes did not act as a long-range deterrent but appeared to "dazzle" the flies that got up close - possibly because of the flies' low-resolution vision.

Behavioural ecologist Tim Caro of the University of California-Davis, who is the lead author of the research published in the journal PLOS ONE, said that only the fly attack hypothesis stands up to scrutiny. They also covered the horses with three different coats, one black, one white, and one striped (pictured) much like a zebra. Just as before, when horses wore coats with striped patterns, they experienced fewer horse fly landings. Some researchers have said the stripes serves as camouflage to confuse big predators, an identity signal to other zebras, or even a kind of wearable air conditioner, according to the Times.

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The researchers videoed horse flies as they tried to prey on captive zebras and domestic horses at a livery in North Somerset, England. However, video analysis revealed differences in approach speed.

More recent research has suggested that somehow the stripes reduce the chances of a zebra being bitten by flies.

As additional protection, zebras swish their tails nearly continuously to keep flies off, the study found.

Researchers think that zebras may have evolved this way because where they live. But the flies managed to land on zebras less than a quarter as often.

If the flies are particularly persistent, they will stop feeding or attempt to flee from them.

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