Science might have finally figured out why zebras have stripes

Zebras are seen at the Nairobi National Park in Nairobi Kenya

Zebras are seen at the Nairobi National Park in Nairobi Kenya

However, once the flies are close to the zebras, they tend to fly past the zebra or bump into it, that indicates the stripes might disrupt the flies' ability to control the landing.

They suggested that horse flies gathered around domestic horses and zebras at a similar rate - but landed on zebras a quarter as often. The zebra tail swishing, and at times running, means flies that land on zebras are tossed off more quickly. The team tackled that question by studying both horses and zebras and tallying the number of insects that landed on and bit each animal.

"Stripes may dazzle flies in some way once they are close enough to see them with their low-resolution eyes", said co-author Martin How of the University of Bristol.

Horse flies are a widespread problem for domestic animals so mitigating techniques, such as the development of anti-fly wear created to resemble zebra stripes, may, from this research, be an interesting outcome for animal health and wellbeing.

More recent research has suggested that somehow the stripes reduce the chances of a zebra being bitten by flies. When uniformly coloured horses were dressed in "zebra coats" the flies made far fewer landings on the striped areas but were not kept away from the uncovered head.

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Researchers do not yet understand why zebras evolved these sophisticated defense mechanisms, according to a UC Davis statement.

There had been four main hypotheses about the advantages zebras accrued by evolving stripes: camouflage to avoid large predators; a social function like individual recognition; thermoregulation, with stripes setting up convection currents along the animal's back; and thwarting biting fly attacks. Now, a new study suggests that the stripes may have a different goal entirely.

African horse flies carry diseases such as trypanosomiasis (which cause fever, headaches, joint pains and itching and can later on include behavioural changes, confusion and poor coordination) and African horse sickness that causes wasting. While horses are more low-key about the presence of flies, merely twitching and occasionally swishing their tails to ward off the insects, zebras are far less tolerant.

The answer is "very", but joking aside, scientists have recently conducted an experiment doing just that to find out why zebras have stripes. The zebra swished tails nearly continuously to ward off flies, while horses primarily twitch and occasionally swish tails to ward off flies.

The team closely observed zebras as flies attempted to land on them and made detailed videos to record flight trajectories as flies move close to the zebras.

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