March 24, 2019

Science might have finally figured out why zebras have stripes

22 February 2019, 07:11 | Edward Lowe

But, what is it about stripes that so disrupts a biting fly's ability to land on a zebra and suck its blood?

In one experiment, the researchers put cloth coats bearing striped patterns on horses and observed that fewer flies landed on them than when the same horses wore single-colour coats. He found horseflies had no problem spotting either group, but they were awful at landing on the striped horses. In Africa, flies called horse flies carry diseases that may seriously harm zebras so they have developed the stripes to protect themselves.

Martin How, a member of the team from the University of Bristol, says "stripes may dazzle the flies in some way once they are close enough to see them with their low-resolution eyes". The team dressed the horses and zebras sequentially in black, white, and then black and white striped coats. Today, many scientists believe that the black-and-white stripes actually function as a fly repellant, but because it's hard to get close to wild zebras, it hasn't been clear how the pattern might deter the pesky critters from landing on the animals and taking a bite.

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"We saw that these horseflies were coming in quite fast and nearly turning away or sometimes even colliding with the zebra, rather than doing a nice, controlled flight".

Stripes are fashionable on humans, but it turns out the pattern serves a greater objective for zebras: pest control. However, once they got close to the animals, the insects tended to fly past or bump into zebras. Some thought stripes must help zebras blend into the grasses to avoid lions, which is the worst explanation I've ever heard.

Zebra's stripes have given rise to a range of theories including camouflage, a way of confusing predators, a method of signalling other zebras, and a system of heat control.

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"Most biologists involved with research on mammal coloration accept that this is the reason that zebras have stripes". Zebras swish their tails nearly continuously during the day to keep flies off; they stop feeding if bothered by them; and if the flies are particularly persistent, the zebras will run from them.

It's warding off these biting insects that the stripes are for according to the scientists.

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

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