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19 things you didn't know about zebras

Few animals are as striking as the zebra in a purely graphic sense. Giant pandas, penguins and skunks may share the same bold color combination, but the zebra’s contrasting stripes make it an animal that stands out from the crowd. Its dazzling mod pattern has made the zebra a muse to fashion designers, a mascot for advertisers, and a delight to legions of zoo visitors. But the zebra is much more than a horse with stripes. Consider the following:

1. There are three species of zebra and in the wild they are only found in Africa. They include: Burchell’s zebra, also known as the common or plains zebra; Grevy’s zebra, named for Jules Grevy, a 19th century French president who received one from Abyssinia as a gift; and the Equus zebra. All three belong to the genus Equus, which includes horses and donkeys.

2. Why oh why does a zebra have those stripes? Theories abound. Traditionally, a zebra’s distinctive stripes were thought to offer protection, providing camouflage against grasses and making individual animals difficult to single out in a herd when viewed by predators. But 2016 research says the stripes aren’t for camouflage at all.

Another long-standing theory was that stripes keep zebras cool. But scientists discovered in 2018 that’s not the case. While scientists have been able to eliminate certain theories, they still don’t know why zebras have stripes.

A team of scientists from the U.S. and U.K. hypothesized that the stripes may fend off flies and other biting insects. In a February 2019 study, researchers tested if flies would land on horses more than zebras, and they were correct. They observed that flies hovered around zebras just as much as horses, but they weren’t landing on zebras as often. Upon further observation, they realized the zebra’s stripes caused the flies to become disoriented so they end up bumping into a zebra instead of successfully landing. They also noticed that zebras flick away flies more frequently and faster than horses. The scientists were quick to note though that this is just one proven theory and that stripes could serve multiple purposes.

3. The skin of a zebra is black. Does that makes its stripes white? The conundrum ensues.

Close up of a zebra's head Can you tell where I’m from by looking at my stripes? (Photo: Michal Ninger/Shutterstock)

4. Each species of zebra has different types of stripes, varying in width and pattern distribution. Curiously, the farther south on the African plains the zebra lives, the father apart its stripes will be.

5. Within each species, no two zebras have the same stripes; they are as unique as fingerprints.

6. Zebras weigh anywhere from 400 to 850 pounds, depending on the species. The Grevy’s zebra is the largest wild member of the horse family.

group of zebras Family is important to zebras. (Photo: Chantal de Bruijne/Shutterstock)

7. Zebras are social animals and live in small family groups that combine into large herds. Even when grouped in a massive swath of other zebras, they remain close to their families.

8. Constantly on the watch for lions and hyenas, a herd helps with all of its extra eyes to monitor for danger. If a zebra is attacked, other zebras come to its defense and form a circle around it to ward off the predator.

9. Zebras are often found mingling with antelope herds, adding extra protection against threats.

10. In the wild, zebras usually live to be between 20 to 30 years old; they can live to the age of 40 in zoos.

zonkey A zonkey is a cross between a zebra and a what? (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

11. We have been cross-breeding zebras with other equines since at least the 19th century; the resulting “zebroids” come in a number of newfangled names, from zedonk, zorse and zebra mule to zonkey (pictured above) and zebrule.

12. Zebras don’t run as quickly as horses; they max out at around 35 mph, but they have excellent endurance and their zigzagging gait helps them to better evade predators.

13. A cornered zebra rears, kicks and bites in defense. There have been numerous recorded cases of zebras killing lions, generally by a swift kick to the head that at the very least breaks the jaw, resulting in the cat’s eventual starvation.

14. Humans have certainly tried, but zebras, in general, have been resistant to our domestication efforts. Bless their stubborn souls; although perhaps more accurately, it’s their aggressive nature that has spared them such a fate. It survives the plains of Africa and can kill a lion.

Lionel Walter Rothschild was able to train zebras to draw his carriage through London Lionel Rothschild turned heads with his trained zebras. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

15. While eccentric zoologist Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868-1937), 2nd Baron Rothschild, was able to train zebras to draw his carriage through London (pictured above in 1895), he knew that zebras would be unsuitable for riding and further domestication.

16. During the zebras’ annual migration in search of food and water, it is the responsibility of the oldest male in the family to ensure that the group never strays too far from water.

17. Burchell’s zebra are listed as near threatened by the IUCN. Both the Grevy’s zebra and the Equus zebra are listed as endangered. Humans are the biggest threat to zebra populations; hunting and habitat destruction are to blame for their decline.

18. Of all the Fruit Stripe Gum mascots, the zebra, “Yipes,” has outlasted the rest and has become the main “spokesanimal.” In 1988, Yipes was made into a promotional bendy figure, one that can fetch relatively high prices in the toy collector’s market.

zebra foal Zebras are quick learners. (Photo: H. van der Winden/Shutterstock)

19. And last but not least, zebra foals can get up and walk a mere 20 minutes after they’re born. All together now: awwww.

This story was originally published in April 2014 and has been updated to reflect more recent information.

19 things you didn’t know about zebras

From their smart stripes to the power of their kicks, behold the wonders of zebras.

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