Why do zebras have stripes? This question has been stumping both animal experts and zebra fans all over the world for centuries. But now it appears that some researchers in California may have finally solved the age-old mystery!
Over the years, there have been many theories - Some believed that it was purely accidental and caused by interbreeding, while others thought it was to confuse predators. Then there were the speculations that the stripes probably helped with camouflage, keeping the animals cool in the blazing African sun and last but not least, scaring away the pesky flies that always seem to be hovering around. But no one had ever tried to prove any of the theories, with scientific research.
Determined to solve this age-old mystery, a team of scientists led by Tim Caro, Professor of Wildlife Biology at the University of California, Davis, set to work. They began by comparing the thickness, location, and prominence of the stripes on seven species of zebras that reside in various geographic locations. They then examined what forces of nature, each one had to battle - ranging from natural predators to temperature to the small insects like tsetse flies and tabanids, that they may be constantly subjected to. To their amazement, the only factor that correlated with the stripes was the biting flies. The zebras with the most prominent and largest number of stripes, overwhelmingly inhabited areas with more flies.
But that led to another question: why are zebras the only ones smart enough to develop the stripes? After all, there are plenty of other animals like horses and donkeys, that are subjected to the same torture. Upon closer examination of the black and white animals, the researchers noticed that unlike the others, zebras have very short coats of hair, making them particularly susceptible to getting bitten by the flies!
While Tim, who published his findings in the online journal, Nature Communications, on April 1st, says that this mystery is finally solved, it has given rise to a new one - Why are these fearless flies who have no qualms attacking animals that are thousands of times bigger, afraid of black and white stripes? If you have any theories, be sure to add it to the comments below. It may help the professor with his next quest!