Wednesday, 20 March, 2019

Study reveals why the zebra got its stripes

Researchers put a horse in a zebra costume for science Why the zebra got its stripes: to deter flies from landing on it
Cary Marshall | 23 February, 2019, 20:41

But, what is it about stripes that so disrupts a biting fly's ability to land on a zebra and suck its blood? In a new study, researchers at the University of California Davis performed a series of experiments that investigated how stripes altered the behavior of biting insects. But the stylish zebra-striped attire did not stop flies from landing on the horses' unadorned heads.

Further insights, gathered through video recordings of the zebras and a smaller group of horses, revealed flies failed to slow down steadily when zooming towards zebras, unlike they did for horses, and often simply careered into the animals. How rubbish does a horse look when you dress it up as a zebra?

Dr Martin How, co-author of the research from the University of Bristol, said: "The flies seemed to be behaving relatively naturally around both [zebras and horses], until it comes to landing".

The study took place on a United Kingdom horse farm in Somerset that keeps both domestic horses and zebras.

Researchers at the University of Bristol used video analysis to test whether flies were more likely to attack zebras or horses at stables in North Somerset.

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Theories about their function have included camouflage, a means of confusing predators, a method of signalling other zebras, and a system of heat control. Some thought stripes must help zebras blend into the grasses to avoid lions, which is the worst explanation I've ever heard.

To confirm that it was indeed coat pattern that was thwarting the flies' precision, the researchers kitted some of the horses out in three cloth jackets: one white, one black and one zebra-striped.

The answer is "very", but joking aside, scientists have recently conducted an experiment doing just that to find out why zebras have stripes.

Researchers do not yet understand why zebras evolved these sophisticated defense mechanisms, according to a UC Davis statement. "Consequently, far fewer successful landings were experienced by zebras compared to horses", Caro said in a statement. In Africa, where wild zebras roam, flies carry a number of diseases that are fatal to the striped creatures, and their thin coats make them especially easy to bite. Zebras swish their tails nearly continuously during the day to keep flies off; they stop feeding if bothered by them; and if the flies are particularly persistent, the zebras will run from them.

In contrast domestic horses chiefly twitch to flick away flies and only occasionally swish their tails.

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