May 22, 2019

How the zebra’s stripes ward off insects

23 February 2019, 08:40 | Edward Lowe

Horse dressed in a striped coat in order to resemble a zebra. Credit Tim Caro UC Davis

Horse dressed in a striped coat in order to resemble a zebra. Credit Tim Caro  UC Davis

In a new study, researchers at the University of California Davis performed a series of experiments that investigated how stripes altered the behavior of biting insects. He found horseflies had no problem spotting either group, but they were awful at landing on the striped horses.

Professor Tim Caro, Honorary Research Fellow from the University of Bristol's School of Biological Sciences, said: "Horse flies just seem to fly over zebra stripes or bump into them, but this didn't happen with horses". The study found that flies were as attracted to zebras as they were to horses indicating the stripes do nothing to deter flies at a distance. The zebra tail swishing, and at times running, means flies that land on zebras are tossed off more quickly. The flies tended to fly over or glance off the zebras; when it came to horses, many more flies were able to stick the landing.

The assumption is that the stripes somehow "dazzle flies" when they are close enough to see the stripes with low-resolution eyes.

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The study took place on a United Kingdom horse farm in Somerset that keeps both domestic horses and zebras. I've wondered why zebras had stripes ever since I learned zebras existed.

The experiment, which took place at a horse farm in the United Kingdom, involved both horses and zebras, which were dressed sequentially in black, white, and the black-and-white striped coats.

The goal of the black-and-white markings has always been a mystery.

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They studied photos and video footage of zebras to test the theory, which suggested the markings make optical illusions so it's hard for predators to focus on individual animals. While horses are more low-key about the presence of flies, merely twitching and occasionally swishing their tails to ward off the insects, zebras are far less tolerant.

Compared to rates at which flies landed on the white coats and the black coats, hardly any landed on the striped coats. Hoping to find out how flies interacted with the different species, the team conducted careful observations of the animals-and dressed the horses up in snazzy, zebra-print coats. Be that as it may, video investigations uncovered contrasts in approach speed, with horse flies neglecting to back off on way to deal with zebras, which is fundamental for a successful landing.

African horse flies carry diseases such as trypanosomiasis (which cause fever, headaches, joint pains and itching and can later on include behavioural changes, confusion and poor coordination) and African horse sickness that causes wasting. The striped animals nearly continuously swish their tails during the day and will stop feeding if they feel bothered.

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