Research reveals why the zebra got its stripes

Cristina Cross
February 23, 2019

UC Davis Professor Tim Caro led a series of unique experiments for this study to better understand how stripes manipulate the behavior of biting flies as they attempt to come in for a landing on a zebra. How rubbish does a horse look when you dress it up as a zebra?

It's one of nature's more intriguing and enduring mysteries: Why do zebras have stripes?

Stripes did not deter flies from a distance as they circled horses and zebras at similar rates.

This research provides new evidence for the theory that zebras evolved dichromatic striped coats to evade biting flies and has considerable implications for the horse industry.

There are no flies on a zebra thanks to the evolution of their black and white stripes, according to scientists at the University of Bristol. When horses wore coats with striped patterns, there were fewer horse-fly landings than when they didn't wear stripes.

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Dr Martin How, a member of the team from the University of Bristol, said: 'Stripes may dazzle the flies in some way once they are close enough to see them with their low-resolution eyes'. Researchers both watched the animals and filmed them, recording the number of horseflies-which bite animals to obtain blood-that hovered nearby. When approaching zebras, horse flies fail to slow down, which is essential for a successful landing.

Video footage showed that the flies made uncontrolled approaches when faced with a striped landing strip.

Horse flies are a widespread problem for domestic animals so mitigating techniques, such as the development of anti-fly wear created to resemble zebra stripes, may, from this research, be an interesting outcome for animal health and wellbeing.

The study also showed stripes did not act as a long-range deterrent but appeared to "dazzle" the flies that got up clos. Zebras exhibited preventative behaviour, such as running away and tail swishing at a far higher rate than horses. The experiments were conducted on a horse farm in Great Britain and involved a horse wearing a zebra costume and actual zebras. The zebra swished tails nearly continuously to ward off flies, while horses primarily twitch and occasionally swish tails to ward off flies. A possible explanation is zebras may be highly prone to infectious diseases carried by African biting flies, although that hypothesis requires further study. But once the flies got closer to the zebras, stripes did seem to interfere with their ability to hone in on the source of their intended snack.

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