Why Do Zebras Have Stripes?
Zebras’ stripes are a form of camouflage that helps them to hide from their enemies. When you see a zebra in a zoo, its stripes make it stand out clearly. But in its wild home on the grassy African plains, the zebra is not so easily spotted.
When seen from a distance, the black or brown stripes on a whitish background break up the outline of the zebra’s body into unrecognizable shapes that blend in with the scenery. Since zebras normally live in the same grasslands as lions, their chief enemy, this protection is very necessary for their survival.
This “stripe riddle” has puzzled scientists, including Darwin, for over a century. There are five main hypotheses for why zebras have the stripes: to repel insects, to provide camouflage through some optical illusion, to confuse predators, to reduce body temperature, or to help the animals recognize each other.
A new analysis of the plains zebra – the most common species, which ranges from Ethiopia to South Africa – does show that temperature is the factor most strongly linked to striping: More specifically, the warmer it is, the more stripes on the zebra. Zebras in warmer climates sport more stripes, perhaps to keep them cool or healthy.