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A research team led by the University of California, Davis, has now examined why zebras have black and white stripes. Their answer is published April 1 in the online journal Nature Communications.
The scientists found that biting flies, including horseflies and tsetse flies, are the evolutionary driver for zebra’s stripes. Experimental work had previously shown that such flies tend to avoid black-and-white striped surfaces, but many other hypotheses for zebra stripes have been proposed since Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin debated the problem 120 years ago. These include:
The team mapped the geographic distributions of the seven different species of zebras, horses and asses, and of their subspecies, noting the thickness, locations, and intensity of their stripes on several parts of their bodies. Their next step was to compare these animals’ geographic ranges with different variables, including woodland areas, ranges of large predators, temperature, and the geographic distribution of glossinid (tsetse flies) and tabanid (horseflies) biting flies. They then examined where the striped animals and these variables overlapped.
After analyzing the five hypotheses, the scientists ruled out all but one: avoiding blood-sucking flies.
"I was amazed by our results," said lead author Tim Caro, a UC Davis professor of wildlife biology. "Again and again, there was greater striping on areas of the body in those parts of the world where there was more annoyance from biting flies."
Caption: UC Davis scientists have learned why zebras, like these plains zebras in Katavi National Park, Tanzania, have stripes. Credit: Tim Caro/UC Davis