The Masai Mara Reserve is one of Kenya's most popular tourist attractions. Every year, thousands of people flock to the national park to glimpse of a variety of wild animals, such as lions and cheetahs, or to witness the majestic annual migration of over 1.5 million wildebeests to and from neighboring Tanzania. However, this September's human "stampede" is due to an unexpected animal — a zebra foal with polka dots!
Anthony Tira, a local tour guide and photographer, was the first to notice the zebra's unusual pattern in mid-September. “At first I thought it was a zebra that had been captured and painted or marked for purposes of migration,” he told George Sayagie of the Daily Nation, a Kenyan newspaper. “I was confused when I first saw it.”
Hong Kong-based professional photographer Frank Liu had a similar reaction when he saw the animal a few days later. “At first glance, he looked like a different species altogether,” Liu told Forbes in an email. Upon closer examination, both Tira and Liu realized that the foal's stunning polka dots were probably the result of a pigment mutation.
Ren Larison, a biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, believes the foal, nicknamed Tira, has a genetic condition known as “pseudomelanism." The expert says that the dark-skinned zebras obtain their stripes from specialized skin cells called melanocytes, which transfer melanin into some of their hairs. The parts that obtain the melanin appear black, while those that don't, look white. On rare occasions, however, the melanin transfers in a pattern that is different from the familiar stripes associated with zebras.
Though Tira is Masai Mara's first polka-dotted zebra, it is not the only one of its kind. A similar foal was caught on camera by a photographer at Botswana's Okavango Delta in 2014. Experts, who have also noticed other variants, including a "golden" zebra in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park in February 2019, believe the skin mutations may be more common than we realize. However, they are rarely seen because most abnormally patterned or colored zebras rarely survive to adulthood. Their striking looks, which do not blend in with the herd, make them easy targets for hungry lions or hyenas. Hopefully, little Tira, who is being closely monitored by the park's officials, will be able to buck the trend and delight visitors for many years.
Resources: Natgeo.com, Smithsonianmag.com,Forbes.com