Scientists answer age-old question: why do zebras have stripes?

Gwen Vasquez
February 23, 2019

"Just like when you're flying on an airplane, a controlled landing is extremely important for flies", Tim Caro, lead study author and behavioral ecologist at UC Davis, tells Popular Science's Jessica Boddy.

The researchers recorded three captive plains zebras and nine monochromatically colored horses in adjacent fields in the United Kingdom where European tabanids (horseflies) naturally occur.

Scientists have found that the primary goal of zebras' stripes is for avoiding blood-sucking parasites. Their study shows that stripes don't deter horse flies from a distance, with both zebras and domestic horses experiencing the same rate of circling from the flies.

African horse flies carry diseases such as trypanosomiasis and African horse sickness that cause wasting and can be fatal.

Researchers may have finally discovered why zebras have stripes, with new experiments showing that horse flies find it more hard to land on zebras than they do on uniformly coloured horses.

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Scientists are providing new evidence to answer the longstanding question about why zebras have stripes. Researchers also found that horses and zebras react differently to flies.

Horse flies are a widespread problem for domestic animals so mitigating techniques, such as the development of anti-fly wear created to resemble zebra stripes, may, from this research, be an interesting outcome for animal health and wellbeing. Now, researchers have added evidence to a theory that the primary goal of the stripes is for avoiding blood-sucking parasites - horse flies.

"Stripes may dazzle flies in some way once they are close enough to see them with their low-resolution eyes", How said. Horses, on the other hand, primarily twitch and occasionally swish to ward off flies. He said it was likely the "sudden reveal" of the stripes on close approach either surprised the insects and made them veer off, or interfered with their perception of how fast objects were moving past them, affecting their ability to land.

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. The experiments were conducted on a horse farm in Great Britain and involved a horse wearing a zebra costume and actual zebras. Some thought stripes must help zebras blend into the grasses to avoid lions, which is the worst explanation I've ever heard.

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