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Why are zebras stripy?

Apr 09, 2014

The animals might have evolved their markings to protect themselves from bloodsucking flies.

Although no-one’s quite sure why, it’s long been known that flies don’t like stripes. This fact not only answers the question of how to avoid them landing on you – try wearing a stripy T-shirt – but now also the mystery of why zebras have stripes. Zebras’ distinctive markings haze puzzled scientists since at least the days of Charles Darwin, who thought they might be a form of camouflage. Others have offered explanations such as them being a way for zebras to control their temperature or attract a mate.

However, a new study suggests the stripes are a form of fly repellent, a conclusion scientists reached after mapping the spread of various species of mammals including horses and zebras that have stripes on their bodies. They found that those that had the most obvious stripes were also the ones that lived in places with the most bloodsucking insects such as horseflies and tsetse flies, which often carry diseases. A zebra’s short hair means they are easily bitten by flies, yet stripes could put these parasites off without the need for a thicker fur coat which might be too heavy and sweaty in a warmer climate.

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