Why Do Zebras Have Stripes?

(Last Updated On: February 11, 2019)
Why Do Zebras Have Stripes?

Who doesn’t love Zebras? With their horse-like features, tall stature, and cool stripes, seemingly everyone gets excited when they see them at the zoo or in the wild. But have you ever wondered why these animals look the way they do? Why do zebras have stripes? What purpose could these stripes possibly serve?

Well, it turns out many others have wondered about that exact same thing. We know about evolution, and how every species has to adapt to changes in the environment as a means of survival. So what evolutionary purpose do zebra stripes serve? It turns out, scientists are still a little confused about it all.

Why Do Zebras Have Stripes?

First, a clarification…

We’ll break down a couple theories as to why zebras have stripes, but first, we should clarify something about the appearance of zebras. Contrary to popular belief, zebras are not white with black stripes. It is actually the other way around. Zebras are black!

It was long believed that zebras’ primary color was white, especially considering that some zebras have completely white underbellies. However, embryological evidence showcases that the background color of a zebra is in fact, black. That doesn’t explain why they have stripes, but is an interesting bit of zebra trivia. Want another fun zebra fact? Much like human fingerprints, no two zebras have the same stripe pattern.

Do Stripes Help Zebras Regulate Body Temperature?

One of the prevailing theories as to why zebras have stripes has long been that they help the animals regulate their body temperatures in the hot, African sun. However, Hungarian scientists recently debunked this popular explanation.

In a 2018 study by Hungarian Researcher Gábor Horváth of the Eötvös Loránd University, his team was able to disprove the hypothesis that zebra stripes control body temperature. Their team took metal barrels filled with water, covered them in animals skins with various patterns, and placed them in the open air for four months. During this time, their temperatures were measured and compared to that of living zebras. The report concluded that there were no significant temperature changes between the individual barrels covered with similarly patterned zebra prints and those of other prints or lack of prints.

Do Stripes Help Zebras Camouflage?

Another popular explanation for zebra stripes is that they help the animals camouflage. This might seem odd, given that most humans can probably spot a zebra a mile away, but supporters of this theory argue the camouflage is less dependent on color, and more centered around patterns.

Zebras are herd-animals, meaning they stay close to their pack. One of their main predators is the lion, which is colorblind. When standing close together, zebras are said to create a type of illusion to their predators, looking almost as if they’re one large animal. But there is an issue with this theory. If zebras evolved this type of defense mechanism against predators, why didn’t other African herd-animals?

Today, most credible scientists don’t support the zebra stripes as camouflage hypothesis.

So What Are Zebra Stripes For?

If you’re looking for a definitive answer as to why zebras have stripes, you might have to wait a little longer. It has been estimated that there are as many as 18 theories for possible functions of zebra stripes. Clearly, this is an issue with many ideas and few definitive answers. Not everything in science is so black and white.

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