Have you ever asked the question as a joke before? That’s a rhetorical one, because everyone, at some point, has asked if zebras were white with black or black with white. Most probably haven’t really thought about it, because at the end of the day there isn’t really that much of a difference. But you asked this question because you wanted access to forbidden knowledge, so let’s answer. Are zebras white with black stripes or white with black stripes?
Further Reading: Why Do Zebras Have Stripes?
Spoiler alert if you read the linked post above. Zebras are black with white stripes. We used to think it was the other way around, since the black stripes end at the belly/around the inside of their legs–making it appear that the stripes are overlaid on top of a white coat.
What if you shaved a zebra?
You might think we could just shave a zebra and call it a day. Which–depending on how you see it–we guess that would kind of work. If you were to sit down and actually shave a zebra’s coat completely off, it would be all black (you probably shouldn’t do this). If you were to shave a polar bear, it would also be completely black. Definitely don’t shave a polar bear. It would kill you. So would a tiger–but tigers have striped skin under their fur.
Now here’s the thing, while it does happen that zebras have black skin, it might not necessarily be the way to look at it. You could make the argument that it is, but we can always go farther–and you probably have that one friend who would tell you just shaving a zebra isn’t going to answer the question. Because they are, in fact, that one friend. The question you might be asking instead is “what is the default fur color of a zebra.” For that we turn to melanocytes and melanin.
You probably know what melanin is, at least in humans. It’s the thing that gives your skin, eyes, and hair their color. Melanin is produced by melanocytes, and everyone has the exact same amount of melanocytes. Which might sound a little strange, considering that people you know probably have lighter or darker hair than you. Turns out it’s just about how much melanin the cells make, rather than the count of melanocytes.
Mammals, like us and zebras, only have one type of pigment cell (the melanocyte). This applies to birds too, though melanocytes can produce black/brown pigments (eumelanin) or yellow/red pigments (pheomelanin). This applies to birds too. Melanocytes can switch between these pigments.
Sidebar, but fish and amphibians use different pigment cells called chromatophores–and they have like six different types.
Anyway, back to zebras. If melanocytes are producing melanin, you get darker pigment. If they are not producing melanin, the pigment is lighter. On a zebra, that means the black hairs in their coat come from follicles with melanocytes producing melanin. The white hairs in their coat come from follicles not producing melanin. Producing melanin is generally taken to be the “default” state of melanocytes, thus zebras are black by default.
Have fun looking at other zebra animals here.