Why the zebra got its stripes: to deter flies from landing on it
22 February, 2019, 07:09
As a result, any flies that actually contacted zebras were soon dislodged compared to horses.
In one experiment, the researchers put cloth coats bearing striped patterns on horses and observed that fewer flies landed on them than when the same horses wore single-color coats. Only five flies landed on the horses dressed in zebra coats during a 30-minute period, whereas more than 60 touched down on those in the solid black and solid white coats in the same time period. But the stylish zebra-striped attire did not stop flies from landing on the horses' unadorned heads.
Typically they came in too fast, often crashing into their prey or aborting the landing altogether. "This indicates that stripes may disrupt the flies' abilities to have a controlled landing".
University of Bristol biologist and study co-author Martin How said stripes may dazzle flies somehow once the insects venture close enough to see them with their low-resolution eyes.
The experiment involved three zebras and nine horses with uniformly white, black, grey or brown coats.
Anti-predation is also a wide-ranging area, including camouflage and various aspects of visual confusion. Some thought stripes must help zebras blend into the grasses to avoid lions, which is the worst explanation I've ever heard.
In a similar way, human pilots can be dazzled when attempting to land into the sun. The study took place on a United Kingdom horse farm in Somerset that keeps both domestic horses and zebras. But what about a zebra's stripes? Stripes may therefore offer zebras vital protection, though the researchers aren't entirely sure why the pattern seems to confuse flies.
As additional protection, zebras swish their tails nearly continuously to keep flies off, the study found. The striped animals nearly continuously swish their tails during the day and will stop feeding if they feel bothered.
In contrast domestic horses chiefly twitch to flick away flies and only occasionally swish their tails.
Behavioural ecologist Tim Caro of the University of California-Davis, who is the lead author of the research published in the journal PLOS ONE, said that only the fly attack hypothesis stands up to scrutiny.
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