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posted: 6/4/2013 1:50 PM

Zebra stripes serve as camouflage in the wild

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  • Zebras have stripes to help them blend into their surroundings in the wild.

    Zebras have stripes to help them blend into their surroundings in the wild.
    Courtesy of Jim Schulz/Chicago Zoological Society


Students in Nancy Sullivan's sixth grade class at Frederick Nerge Elementary School, Roselle, asked, "Why do zebras have stripes and not horses since they are from the same animal family?"

Zebras aren't just a horse of a different color.

Zebras and horses are branches from the same scientific family called Equidae, from the genus Equus, and zebras, a separate species, are undomesticated. Donkeys are another member of the Equidae family.

What would you call a zebra-horse mix? The quagga, technically a zebra subspecies, looked like a horse/zebra combo -- the front half was striped and the back half was a horse-like solid brown. Quaggas have been extinct for about 100 years.

"Zebras have a lot of personality, that's for sure," said Joan Daniels, curator of mammals at the Chicago Zoological Society's Brookfield Zoo. "They are related to domestic horses."

The dizzying stripes may serve a number of purposes.

"Stripes are there to help the animal blend into its surroundings," Daniels explained. "The vertical stripes help blur the predator's vision, preventing them from seeing the animal and creating camouflage. Here at the Brookfield Zoo it's hard to picture, but in the wild, vertical grasses and vertical bushes make it more difficult to see where a zebra begins and ends."

Those vertical stripes are not unique to zebras, although zebras are the only hoofed animals covered head-to-toe in black-and-white. The "wannabe" African wild ass has stripes on its legs only -- its entire body is a solid, soft donkey-like gray.

Scientists found stripes reflect multiple light patterns and might keep pesky flies at bay.

"There's a new theory that stripes offer some inherent protection against biting flies," Daniels remarked. "Addaxes (a type of solid-colored antelope) are bitten by the flies. Striping could give off an ultraviolet light that we can't see that inhibits flies."

Researchers also discovered that strong zebra odors in the wild might force the biting bugs to back off.

Zebras in the wild are found only in Africa. There are three species -- the plains, the Grevy's and the mountain zebra.

Grevy's zebras are one of the most endangered mammals in Africa, with populations plummeting during the last 30 years by an estimated 80 percent.

Daniels attributes the dangerously small numbers to loss of habitat, drought and disease. The Brookfield Zoo supports the conservation efforts of the Grevy's Zebra Trust, an organization working to protect Grevy's zebras in Kenya and Ethiopia.

Zoo patrons also can help by contributing to the zoo, through animal adoptions or the general funds. Daniels says funding supports the zoo's Center for the Science of Animal Welfare and Center for Conservation Leadership.

Brookfield Zoo is home to four Grevy's zebras and is expecting new arrivals -- baby zebras or foals -- to be born to the zoo's zebra parents this fall.

"Newborns orient on the mother's rump and tail patterns when following the mother in the herd," Daniels commented. As no two zebra stripe patterns are alike, the striping is one way babies locate their moms, along with the mare's call and scent.

Look for these strikingly striped animals located near the zoo's 31st Street entrance in the hoof stock exhibits. Learn more about Grevy's zebras and other zoo animals on the Brookfield Zoo's website,

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