Solved at last! How zebras got their stripes

DAVIS
April 1, 2014 10:26am
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•  UC Davis scientists resolve one of the great puzzles of the ages

•  “No one knew why zebras have such striking coloration”


Why zebras have black and white stripes is a question that has baffled mankind. But now there’s an answer.

A research team led by the University of California, Davis, has figured it out, publishing their findings in the online journal Nature Communications.

The scientists say that biting flies, including horseflies and tsetse flies, are the evolutionary driver for zebra stripes.

Experimental work had previously shown that such flies tend to avoid black-and-white striped surfaces, but many hypotheses for zebra stripes have been proposed since Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin debated the problem 120 years ago.

These have included:

• A form of camouflage

• Disrupting predatory attack by visually confusing carnivores

• A mechanism of heat management

• Having a social function

• Avoiding biting flies

The team mapped the geographic distributions of the seven different species of zebras, horses and asses, and of their subspecies, noting the thickness, locations, and intensity of their stripes on several parts of their bodies. Their next step was to compare these animals' geographic ranges with different variables, including woodland areas, ranges of large predators, temperature, and the geographic distribution of tsetse flies and horseflies. They then examined where the striped animals and these variables overlapped.

After analyzing the five hypotheses, the scientists ruled out all but one: avoiding blood-sucking flies.

"I was amazed by our results," says lead author Tim Caro, a UC Davis professor of wildlife biology. "Again and again, there was greater striping on areas of the body in those parts of the world where there was more annoyance from biting flies."

While the distribution of tsetse flies in Africa is well known, the researchers did not have maps of horseflies and deer flies. Instead, they mapped locations of the best breeding conditions for those biting flies, creating an environmental proxy for their distributions.

They found that striping is highly associated with several consecutive months of ideal conditions for biting fly reproduction.

Why would zebras evolve to have stripes whereas other hooved mammals did not? The study found that, unlike other African hooved mammals living in the same areas as zebras, zebra hair is shorter than the mouthpart length of biting flies, so zebras may be particularly susceptible to annoyance by biting flies.

"No one knew why zebras have such striking coloration," Mr. Caro says. "But solving evolutionary conundrums increases our knowledge of the natural world and may spark greater commitment to conserving it."

But why do biting flies avoid striped surfaces? Mr. Caro says that now that his study has provided ecological validity to the biting fly hypothesis, the evolutionary debate can move from why zebras have stripes to what prevents biting flies from seeing striped surfaces as potential prey, and why zebras are so susceptible to biting fly annoyance.

Co-authors on the study include Amanda Izzo and Hannah Walker with the UC Davis Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology; Robert Reiner Jr., of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and the Fogarty International Center, National Institutes of Health; and Theodore Stankowich with the Department of Biological Sciences at California State University, Long Beach.


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Lane Parker 4/1/14 4:23 PM (Laneparker@gmail.com)
Interesting, but wouldn't it be simpler for the zebras to have adapted by having slightly longer hair as do the other hooved animals in the area? Did mutation in the earlier "non-striped" zebras occur suddenly or did the stripes develop slowly? If they developed slowly would the fainter or less contrasting earlier stripes have endowed the individuals with enough of a survival advantage to move the species towards the highly contrasting stripes we see today? However they got that way, they are interesting animals.


#Rich1 4/2/14 9:46 AM
And I thought it was because they don't look good in plaid.














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