|The Zebra is a member of the Equidae family, native to eastern and southern Africa. They are best known for their distinctive white and black stripes which come in different patterns unique to each individual. There are four species of zebra. The Plains zebra, Grevy's zebra, Cape Mountain zebra and the Hartmann's Mountain zebra. They can be found in a variety of habitats, such as grasslands, savannas, woodlands, thorny scrublands, mountains and coastal hills.
Taxonomy and evolution
Zebras were the second species to diverge from the earliest proto-horses, after the asses, around 4 million years ago. The Grevy's zebra is believed to have been the first zebra species to emerge. Zebras might have lived in North America in prehistoric times. Fossils of an ancient equid were discovered in the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument in Hagerman, Idaho. It was named the Hagerman Horse with a scientific name of Equus simplicidens. There is some debate among paleontologists on whether the animal was a horse or a bona-fide zebra. While the animal's overall anatomy seems to be more horse like, its skull and teeth indicate that it was more closely related to the Grevy's Zebra. Thus it is also called the American zebra or Hagerman Zebra.
There are four extant species, as well as several subspecies. Zebra populations vary a great deal, and the relationships between and the taxonomic status of several of the subspecies are well known.
The Plains Zebra
(Equus quagga, formerly Equus burchelli) is the most common, and has or had about twelve subspecies distributed across much of southern and eastern Africa. It, or particular subspecies of it, have also been known as the Common Zebra, the Dauw, Burchell's Zebra (actually the subspecies Equus quagga burchelli), Chapman's Zebra, Wahlberg's Zebra, Selous' Zebra, Grant's Zebra, Boehm's Zebra and the Quagga (another extinct subspecies, Equus quagga quagga).
The Plains Zebra is mid-sized and thick bodied with relatively short legs. Adults of both sexes stand about 1.4 meters (4.6 ft) high at the shoulder, are approximately 2.3 meters (8 ft) long, and weigh about 290 kg (638 lbs). Like all zebras, it is boldly striped in black and white and no two individuals look exactly alike. All have vertical stripes on the forepart of the body, which tend towards the horizontal on the hindquarters. The northern species have narrower and more defined striping; southern populations have varied but lesser amounts of striping on the under parts, the legs and the hindquarters.
Range map of The Plains zebra
The Mountain Zebra
(Equus zebra) of southwest Africa tends to have a sleek coat with a white belly and narrower stripes than the Plains Zebra. There are two distinct species of mountain zebra: the Cape mountain zebra (Equus zebra) and the Hartmann's mountain zebra (Equus hartmannae). Until 2004, these were regarded as subspecies of one mountain zebra species.
Mountain zebras are native to South West Africa and are found in dry, stony, mountain and hill habitats. Their diet consists of tufted grass, bark, leaves, fruit and roots. In 2004, C.P. Groves and C.H. Bell investigated the taxonomy of the zebras genus Equus, subgenus Hippotigris and published their research in Mammalian Biology. They conclude that Equus zebra zebra (Cape mountain zebra) and Equus zebra hartmannea (Hartmann's mountain zebra) are totally distinct, and suggested that the two subspecies are better classified as separate species, Equus zebra and Equus hartmannae.
Groves and Bell found that the Cape mountain zebra exhibits sexual dimorphism, with larger females than males, while the Hartmann's mountain zebra does not. The black stripes of Hartmann's mountain zebra are thin with much wider white interspaces, while this is the opposite in Cape mountain zebra.
Range map of the Mountain Zebra
(Equus grevyi) is the largest type, with an erect mane, and a long, narrow head making it appear rather mule-like. It is an inhabitant of the semi-arid grasslands of Ethiopia and northern Kenya. The Grevy's Zebra is one of the rarest species of zebra around today, and is classified as endangered.
Although zebra species may have overlapping ranges, they do not interbreed. This held true even when the Quagga and Burchell's race of Plains Zebra shared the same area. According to Dorcas McClintock in "A Natural History Of Zebras," Grevy's zebra has 46 chromosomes; plains zebras have 44 chromosomes and mountain zebras have 32 chromosomes. In captivity, Plains Zebras have been crossed with mountain zebras. The hybrid foals lacked a dewlap and resembled the Plains Zebra apart from their larger ears and their hindquarters pattern. Attempts to breed a Grevy's zebra stallion to Mountain Zebra mares resulted in a high rate of miscarriage.
Grevy's zebra is the largest of all wild equines. It is 2.5-3 m (8-10 ft) from head to tail with a 38-75 cm (15-30 in) tail, and stands 1.25-1.6 m (4'1"-5'3") high at the shoulder. These zebras weigh 350-450 kg (770-990 lb). The stripes are narrow and close-set, being broader on the neck, and they extend to the hooves. The belly and the area around the base of the tail lack stripes. With all of the stripes closer together and thinner than most of the other zebras, it is easier to make a good escape and to hide from predators. The ears are very large, rounded, and conical. The head is large, long, and narrow, particularly mule-like in appearance. The mane is tall and erect; juveniles having a mane extending the length of the back.
Range map of the Grevy's Zebra
- Plains Zebra, Equus quagga
- Quagga, Equus quagga quagga (extinct)
- Burchell's Zebra, Equus quagga burchellii (includes Damara Zebra)
- Grant's Zebra, Equus quagga boehmi
- Selous' zebra, Equus quagga borensis
- Chapman's Zebra, Equus quagga chapmani
- Crawshay's Zebra, Equus quagga crawshayi
- Cape Mountain Zebra, Equus zebra
- Hartmann's Mountain Zebra, Equus hartmannae
- Grevy's Zebra, Equus grevyi
Zebras are black or dark animals with white stripes and their bellies have a large white blotch for camouflage purposes. Some zebras have brown "shadow stripes" in-between the white and black coloring.
It is believed that zebras have a dark background for the following three reasons: (1) white equids would not survive well in the African plains or forests; (2) The quagga, an extinct Plains zebra subspecies, had the zebra striping pattern in the front of the animal, but had a dark rump; (3) when the region between the pigmented bands becomes too wide, secondary stripes emerge, as if suppression was weakening. The fact that some zebras have pure white bellies and legs is not very strong evidence for a white background, since many animals of different colors have white or light colored bellies and legs.
The stripes are typically vertical on the head, neck, forequarters, and main body, with horizontal stripes at the rear and on the legs of the animal. The "zebra crossing" is named after the zebra's black and white stripes.
Some zoologists believe that the stripes act as a camouflage mechanism. This is accomplished in several ways. First, the vertical striping helps the zebra hide in grass. While seeming absurd at first glance considering that grass is neither white nor black, it is supposed to be effective against the zebra's main predator, the lion, which is color blind. Theoretically a zebra standing still in tall grass may not be noticed at all by a lion. Additionally, since zebras are herd animals, the stripes may help to confuse predators - a number of zebras standing or moving close together may appear as one large animal, making it more difficult for the lion to pick out any single zebra to attack. A herd of zebras scattering to avoid a predator will also represent to that predator a confused mass of vertical stripes traveling in multiple directions making it difficult for the predator to track an individual visually as it separates from its herd mates, although biologists have never observed lions appearing confused by zebra stripes.
Stripes are also believed to play a role in sexual attractions, with slight variations of the pattern allowing the animals to distinguish between individuals.
A more recent theory, supported by experiment, posits that the disruptive coloration is also an effective means of confusing the visual system of the blood-sucking tsetse fly. Alternative theories include that the stripes coincide with fat patterning beneath the skin, serving as a thermoregulatory mechanism for the zebra, and that wounds sustained disrupt the striping pattern to clearly indicate the fitness of the animal to potential mates.
Like horses, zebras walk, trot, canter and gallop. They are generally slower than horses but their great stamina helps them outpace predators, especially lions, who get tired rather quickly. When chased, a zebra will zig-zag from side to side making it more difficult for the predator. When cornered the zebra will rear up and kick or bite its attacker.
Zebras have excellent eyesight. It is believed that they can see in color. Like most ungulates the zebra has its eyes on the sides of its head, giving it a wide field of view. Zebras also have night vision although it's not as advanced as that of most of their predators but their hearing compensates.
Ears and hearing
Zebras have great hearing, and tend to have larger, rounder ears than horses. Like horses and other ungulates, zebra can turn their ears in almost any direction. Ear movement can also signify the zebra's mood. When a zebra is in a calm or friendly mood, its ears stand erect. When it is frightened, its ears are pushed forward. When angry, the ears are pulled backward.
In addition to eyesight and hearing, zebra have an acute sense of smell and taste.
Like most members of the horse family, zebras are highly sociable. Their social structure, however, depends on the species. Mountain zebras and Plains zebras live in groups consisting of one stallion with up to six mares and their foals. A stallion forms a harem by abducting young mares from their families. When a mare reaches sexual maturity she will exhibit the estrous posture which invites the males. However she is usually not ready for mating at this point and will hide in her family group. Her father has to chase off stallions attempting to abduct her. Eventually a stallion will be able defeat the father and include the mare into his harem.
A stallion will defend his group from bachelor males. When challenged, the stallion would issue a warning to the invader by rubbing nose or shoulder with him. If the warning is not heeded, a fight breaks out. Zebra fights often become very violent, with the animals biting at each other's necks or legs and kicking. While stallions may come and go, the mares stay together for life. They exist in a hierarchy with the alpha female being the first to mate with the stallion and being the one to lead the group.
Unlike the other zebra species, Grevy's zebras do not have permanent social bonds. A group of these zebras rarely stays together for more than a few months. The foals stay with their mother, while the adult male lives alone.
Like horses, zebras sleep standing up and only sleep when neighbors are around to warn them of predators. When attacked by packs of hyenas or wild dogs, a Plains zebra group will huddle together with the foals in the middle while the stallion tries to ward them off. Zebra groups often come together in large herds and migrate together along with other species such as Blue Wildebeests. Zebras communicate with each other with high-pitched barks and brays.
Food and foraging
Zebras are very adaptable grazers. They feed mainly on grasses but will also eat shrubs, herbs, twigs, leaves and bark. Plains zebras are pioneer grazers and are the first to eat at well-vegetated areas. After the area is mowed down by the zebras, other grazers follow.
Like most animal species, female zebras mature earlier than the males and a mare may have her first foal by the age of three. Males are not able to breed until the age of five or six. Mares may give birth to one foal every twelve months. She nurses the foal for up to a year. Like horses, zebras are able to stand, walk and suckle shortly after they're born. A zebra foal is brown and white instead of black and white at birth. Plains and Mountain zebra foals are protected by their mother as well as the head stallion and the other mares in their group. Grevy’s zebra foals have only their mother. Even with parental protection up to 50% of zebra foals are taken by predation, disease and starvation each year.
Attempts have been made to train zebras for riding since they have better resistance than horses to African diseases. However most of these attempts failed, due to the zebra's more unpredictable nature and tendency to panic under stress. For this reason, zebra-mules or zebroids (crosses between any species of zebra and a horse, pony, donkey or ass) are preferred over pure-bred zebras.
In England, the zoological collector Lord Rothschild frequently used zebras to draw a carriage. In 1907, Rosendo Ribeiro, the first doctor in Nairobi, Kenya, used a riding zebra for house-calls.
Captain Horace Hayes, in "Points of the Horse" (circa 1899) compared the usefulness of different zebra species. Hayes saddled and bridled a Mountain Zebra in less than one hour, but was unable to give it a "mouth" during the two days it was in his possession. He noted that the zebra's neck was so stiff and strong that he was unable to bend it in any direction. Although he taught it to do what he wanted in a circus ring, when he took it outdoors he was unable to control it. He found the Burchell's Zebra easy to break in and considered it ideal for domestication, as it was also immune to the bite of the tsetse fly. He considered the quagga well-suited to domestication due to being stronger, more docile and more horse-like than other zebras.
Modern man have had great impact on the zebra population since the 19th century. Zebras were, and still are, hunted mainly for their skins. The Cape mountain zebra was hunted to near extinction with less than 100 individuals by the 1930s. However the population has increased to about 700 due to conservation efforts. Both Mountain zebra species are currently protected in national parks but are still endangered.
The Grevy's zebra is also endangered. Hunting and competition from livestock have greatly decreased their population. Because of the population's small size, environmental hazards, such as drought, are capable of easily affecting the entire species.
Plains zebras are much more numerous and have a healthy population. Nevertheless they too are threatened by hunting and habitat change from farming. One subspecies, the quagga, is now extinct.
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Mammalia
- Order: Perissodactyla
- Family: Equidae
- Genus: Equus
- Subgenus: Hippotigris
- Equus zebra
- Equus hartmannae
- Equus quagga
- Equus grevyi