Few animals are as striking as the zebra in a purely visual 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. But the zebra is much more than a horse with stripes. There are three living species of this dazzling creature: the Grévy’s zebra, the mountain zebra, and the plains zebra, and all are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Here are a few interesting things you may not know about the extraordinary zebra.
1. Zebra Stripes Are Most Likely a Form of Pest Control
Scientists have debated this most important question for 150 years. Theories have ranged from camouflage to throw off predators, to ways of signaling members of their species, and methods of regulating their temperature.1 But the most likely theory, according to research, is much less glamorous.2 It turns out that zebra stripes are a form of pest control: they protect zebras from biting flies. By comparing zebras to horses, their closest living relative, scientists found that horses were bitten by flies disproportionately more often than zebras under the same conditions, leading them to conclude that those amazing stripes are more than just decoration.
2. There Are 3 Species of Zebra in the Wild
Found throughout different regions of Africa, the three living species of zebra are the plains zebra, the mountain zebra, and the Grévy’s zebra. All three belong to the genus Equus, which also includes horses and donkeys.
The Grévy zebra, found only in Ethiopia and Kenya, is named for Jules Grévy, a 19th century French president who received one from Abyssinia as a gift. It is the largest of the three, weighing as much as 1,000 pounds. Plains zebras are a bit smaller, weighing up to 850 pounds. They have a range that extends from South Sudan and southern Ethiopia to northern portions of South Africa. The smallest species, the mountain zebra, weighs as much as 800 pounds and is found in South Africa, Namibia, and Angola.
3. Each Species Has Different Types of Stripes
The width and pattern of zebra stripes vary widely by species. The Grevy’s zebra has narrow vertical stripes covering its entire body, including its ears and mane. The striping pattern of the plains zebra varies by location; they have either black striping and a primarily white body color, or lighter, dark brown stripes overall. Mountain zebras have a white or off-white body color with black or deep brown body stripes that are spaced close together. They do not have stripes on their bellies, and those on their head and body are narrower than the ones on their rump. Even within each species, no two zebras have the same stripes; they are as unique as fingerprints.
4. They Are Impressive Climbers
Not surprisingly, mountain zebras live in rugged terrain at high altitudes. They are well-equipped to handle their habitat: they have hard, pointed hooves that allow them to climb mountains. Making a home at heights of over 6,500 feet, mountain zebras use their impressive climbing abilities to navigate between mountains in search of food and water.3 Not to be outdone, plains zebras traverse a wide range of diverse habitats from mountains as high as 14,000 feet to the plains of the Serengeti. Grévy’s zebras tend to stay closer to the grassland habitats they prefer, remaining at elevations below 2,000 feet.
5. They Are Social Animals
The majority of zebras lead fairly social lives.Plains zebras live in small family groups, called harems, with one male, one to six females, and their offspring. The bonds of the females in the harem are strong; they will stay together even if their dominant male leaves or is killed. The social structure of mountain zebras involves the coexistence of large breeding herds with groups of non-breeding males. The role of the dominant male stallion is most likely to initiate activities of the herd. Grévy’s zebras follow a less formal social structure. The members of the herd vary frequently, sometimes even daily. The most consistently stable relationship among Grévy’s zebras is the one between a mare and her offspring.
6. They Are Always on the Lookout for Danger
Keeping vigilant for signs of lions, hyenas, leopards, and cheetahs, the herd is always watching for danger. When plains zebras sense a predator, they use a high-pitched sound to alert the herd. And at night, at least one member of the group stays awake to keep watch. In mountain zebra populations, the dominant male may also use a snorting sound to warn predators, allowing the rest of the herd an opportunity to escape. Though not the most social of the species, when a threat approaches a group of Grévy’s zebras, they will stand together in solidarity.
7. They Have Several Forms of Self-Defense
Zebras can defend their herd and territory by kicking, biting, and pushing predators. They will engage in similar aggressive behavior when another stallion attempts to take over their herd, or to display dominance in mating. If a zebra is attacked, other zebras come to its defense and form a circle around it to ward off the predator. A more common form of self-preservation in zebras is running; they can travel as fast as 40 to 55 miles per hour to escape from threats.
8. They Have Been Cross-Bred With Other Equines
Since at least the 19th century, zebras have been bred with other animals to form “zebroids.” This cross between a zebra and another equine, most commonly a horse or donkey, is intended to result in the best of both species. Zebras have been largely resistant to domestication, but they are healthier and less susceptible to disease than their equine relatives.4 A variety of zebroids have resulted from these combinations, including zedonks, zorses, and zonies.
9. They Serve as a Famous Mascot
Of all the Fruit Stripe Gum mascots, the zebra named “Yipes” has outlasted the rest and has become the gum’s main “spokesanimal.” Yipes is featured on the outside of packages and on tattoo gum wrappers. In 1988, Yipes was made into a promotional bendy figure, one that can fetch relatively high prices in the toy collector’s market. The company that owns Fruit Stripe Gum has changed several times, but Yipes the zebra mascot remains.
10. They Are Endangered
All three species of extant zebras are on the endangered species list. The Grévy’s zebra is endangered and the most at risk, with fewer than 2,000 remaining.5 But survival of the mountain zebra and the plains zebra is also of great concern. Mountain zebras are vulnerable,6with fewer than 35,000 individuals remaining; plains zebras are near threatened, with a declining population of 150,000 to 250,000.7
Humans are the biggest threat to zebra populations; hunting and habitat destruction are to blame for their decline. Zebras are also threatened by droughts and other extreme weather conditions, loss of genetic diversity caused by inbreeding due to a small subpopulation, and competition with livestock for food.
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