What Is A Zebra? (Everything You Need To Know)

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What Is A Zebra?

The Zebra is a single hoofed animal that is closely related to horses and donkeys. They are native to Africa and are easily recognized by their stripes.

Plains Zebra

History

The name zebra dates back to the 1600s and is derived from the Latin origin of the word equiferus.

In ancient times, the zebra was called hippotigris or horse tiger by the Greeks and Romans.

Zebras are classified along with horses and donkeys, known as genus equus or equines

Equines originally came from North America a little over 4 million years ago. Around 4 million years ago, horses separated from donkeys and zebras. 

Zebras and donkeys then split from one another around 2.8 million years ago, and the ancestors of zebras made their way to Africa roughly 2.3 million years ago. 

The Mountain Zebra emerged about 1.75 million years ago, while the Plains and Grevy’s Zebra emerged approximately 1.5 million years ago. 

Characteristics

Today, we see three different types of zebras; the Plains, Grevy’s, and Mountain Zebra.

Grevy’s Zebra

The Grevy’s Zebra, usually found in Eastern Africa, is between 8.2 and 9.8 feet in length and 4.10 and 5.25 feet in height. She usually weighs between 350-450 pounds and presents with a narrow skull, strong neck, and tapered ears. 

She has a stripe pattern that is narrow, with circular stripes on her rump, with a white tail and belly. There is also a white area around her muzzle.

Plains Zebra

The Plains Zebra is usually found in Eastern and Southern Africa and is between 7.12 and 8.7 feet long and between 3.61 and 4.76 in height. He weighs between 390-850 pounds. 

The South Africa and East Africa zebra has a squat body with little legs and a curved forehead. His nose is somewhat concave with broader stripes.  Horizontal stripes run along his rump. 

The northern populations of the Plains Zebra have more striping than the ones further south. They also have whiter bellies and legs and have a brown hue, giving them the illusion of shadow stripes. 

Mountain Zebra

The Mountain Zebra is found in Southwestern Africa. She is between 6.9 and 8.5 feet long and 3.81 and 4.79 in height. Her eye sockets are rounded and set further back on her face than the others. 

She has a square chest and dense hooves. Her stripes are middle range in width compared to the rest. She has stripes that are horizontal on her rump, and her tummy is white. A chestnut color lines her muzzle. 

What Do They Look Like?

Mountain Zebra

As with all wild equines, all species of zebras have large chests and tufted tails. Their faces and necks are long, and their manes stand tall. Their legs are long, with single toes covered by a solid hoof. 

Their teeth are ideal for grazing in the long grass. Their eyes sit on the sides of their heads, allowing them to gaze out over the tall grass. 

All zebras are known for their black and white striped pattern. Their bellies are usually white, and their muzzle is generally dark. They also have a pattern around their eyes and jaw that is somewhat complex.

Several mutations of their striped coats have been found, some being primarily white and some primarily black. The Albino Zebra has also been spotted in Mount Kenya.

Why Do Zebras Have Stripes? 

This has been a debate amount biologists since the late 1800s, and possibly before. There are several different hypotheses on why zebras have stripes. 

1. The Crypsis Hypothesis

This was thought up by the British explorer Alfred Wallace in 1896. He believed the zebra stripes made it easier to blend in with her environment, so predators don’t see her as a solitary being. He also believed that a zebra’s stripes helped to camouflage them at night when predators are most active. 

But Charles Darwin didn’t think that the zebra’s stripes offered any protection. They eat in open grass and don’t freeze when they sense danger. Stripes don’t seem to make them more challenging to find either, and most predators can find them by smell. 

2. The Confusion Hypothesis

This hypothesis says that a zebra’s stripes confuse predators by making them more difficult to distinguish between a single zebra and a group of zebras. The stripes also confuse a predator during the hunt. It is harder for them to judge the size of the zebra and her and speed. 

Several biologists have stood behind this theory since the 1970s. A study in 2014 states that motion signals sent out by zebras give false information to those that wish to do them harm. But lions seem to have little difficulty in targeting and taking down a zebra by ambush. 

3. The Aposematic Hypothesis

This theory suggests that a zebra’s stripes are there as a warning. L.H. Mathews, a biologist said that zebras have stripes on the side of their mouths, suggesting a large bite. 

Zebras usually do not try to hide and are usually easy prey for lions. This suggests that the stripes may confuse them, but this does not seem to be a problem for smaller predators.

4. The Social Function Hypothesis

This theory states that a zebra’s stripes are part of its social bonding, recognition, and a show of strength. Alfred Wallace noted that the stripes might help because they enable stragglers to tell the difference between their herd mates from far away. 

Horses, zebras, and other equines can recognize each other with visual cues.

5. The Thermoregulatory Hypothesis

This thought process says that a zebra has stripes to control her body temperature. It was noted in 1971 that the black stripes on a zebra absorbed heat and white stripes did not. 

Zoologist Desmone Morris proposed in 1990 that a convection current is set up by the stripes to keep the animal cool. Another study in 2019 also found that a zebra’s stripes were part of her temperature control. 

6. The Fly Protection Hypothesis

This theory says that stripes deter the bites of flies. Horseflies, aside from being annoying, also have diseases that can be deadly to horses. These diseases include equine influenza, trypanosomiasis, and anemia. 

Flies are not as keen to land on the black and white striped fur as it is more challenging to land on. White and light-colored stripes have been painted on other animals and even humans to reduce fly irritations. 

Diet

Zebras eat mostly grass but can also eat leaves, bark, fruits, buds, and roots. They have a simple and slow digestive system. But they can survive on low-quality vegetation. 

They tend to spend between 60-80 percent of their time grazing. 

The Ecology Of The Zebra

The zebra may travel to areas that offer more water, and some will travel over 300 miles. During migration, they tend to recall the memory of their locations, and they know where the grazing conditions are best. 

Plains Zebras depend on the water more than their counterparts and will not wander far from the water.  On the other hand, the Grevy’s Zebra can survive for up to one week with no water, but they will fill up often to conserve it. 

Zebras also spend a great deal of time asleep during the day, and they usually do so standing up. But when they sleep during the night, it’s lying down. They will push on trees and other hard objects to rid themselves of dust and irritation.

Predators

A zebra’s main predator is the lion. Cheetahs, hyenas, and leopards are less likely to kill them. If a zebra is near water, the Nile crocodile will prey on them. They will attempt to defend themselves by kicking and biting.

When caught by a lion, they are usually not good at fighting them off. A zebra can run a little over 42 miles per hour, and the lion only runs about 36 miles per hour, but with a surprise attack, the zebra tends to be unable to escape.

Social Behavior

Species of zebra have two social structures. The Plains and Cape Mountain Zebras stay in a close, stable family group called a harem. It consists of several mares, one stallion, and all of their babies. These groups stay in one range.

Male zebras will form and build upon the group by seeking other young females from neighboring harems. If the male dies, the group will still remain stable.

Plains Zebras

Plains zebras gather into sizeable groups and then create subgroups within the herd. This allows individual zebras to socialize with those, not in the group. 

The female zebras benefit because the stallion assures she has enough time to eat, and he also protects the young. He also gives protection from predators and any problems with outside males. 

The females also create a hierarchy that is based on when they joined the herd. The groups travel in a filing order that is led by the highest-ranking members and their babies. The male of the family will take follow behind. 

The young, both male and female, will eventually leave the group as they get older. The females, as stated before, are usually recruited by other males. 

Grevy’s Zebras

In this group, they have more relaxed associations, and the males will establish sizable territories, which they mark by piles of dung. The Grevy’s live in habitats where grazing areas and water may be separate. 

Lactating and nursing females can stay in the group with those not nursing. The main stallion will establish places near water sources, as this is where sexually mature females tend to gather. 

The subdominants have areas that are farther away, closer to foraging areas. The females may travel throughout several different territories but will stay in one place if there are babies. This gives the female the protection she needs from outside males.

Bachelor Groups

In all zebras, the males group into what is called bachelor groups, which are made up of young males not ready to create groups of their own. In a group of Plains Zebras, the males follow a strong hierarchy system. As the group travels, the bachelors will follow. 

Bachelor groups of Mountain Zebras include young mares who have left the group and males without a harem. They enter into adulthood by play fighting and challenging rituals. 

Males tend to squabble over finding a mate and involve kicking and biting. Plains Zebras will fight over mature mares and which ones to allow in the group. The group stallion will spare with other males that are attempting to take the female. This behavior usually happens at the marker between territories. 

How Do They Communicate?

Zebras will say hello by rubbing and sniffing, followed by bumping cheeks. They then move their muzzles along the body and genitals. 

They will often press against each other. They will also lay their heads on one another. Males usually do this greeting ritual, both harem, and bachelor. 

Zebras also strengthen their bonds by grooming. Moms and babies love to groom each other as well as males and females. It shows the social patterns and helps to diffuse aggressive behavior. 

Zebras also have many different noises and vocalizations that they produce. Plains zebras have a high-pitched call called barking. 

A Grevy’s Zebra sounds much like the grunting of a hippo combined with the wheezing of a donkey. And the Mountain Zebra is quieter.

Zebras also snort when alarmed. They squeal when they feel pain, but young males will squeal during play. They can also talk to one another with visual cues and by moving their lips in particular facial expressions. 

These cues also include certain ways they move their head and tail. Often, much like a donkey, if a zebra is to kick, she may lay her ears back and slash her tail. 

Threatening gestures include bared teeth, flat ears, and sudden movements of the head. 

Reproduction

In groups of Plains and Mountain Zebras, the females will only mate with a stallion in the group. But in the Grevy’s, mating can be a little more challenging. Oestrus in females lasts between 5 to 10 days. 

Signs of being ready to mate include urinating more and swollen genitals. Females will also stand on their back legs and lift their tails when they see a boy. Boys will look at a female’s state by curling his lips and baring his teeth. 

Gestation in zebras varies but is usually between 11-13 months. Most females are ready to produce again after having a foal. As the female gets older, oestrus is less noticeable. 

When a baby is born, she can usually keep up with the group within an hour.  Newborns stay with things that move, so a new mother can prevent other females from getting too close to the babies by imprinting their stripe pattern. 

Foals will try to eat grass after a few weeks, but they can still nurse for up to 13 months. 

Plains and Mountain Zebras are usually cared for by mom, but if they feel threatened, the rest will come together as a team to protect the young. The male in the group will go to great lengths to protect the young. 

In groups of Grevy’s Zebras, the mothers will gather into clusters and leave the young in what is called a kindergarten. A dominant male usually guards this group. 

But Plains Zebras are usually not keen on foals that are not part of the group and will often kill them, both living and those still in the womb.

Zebra’s In Captivity

Since the Roman Empire, zebras have been held in captivity and, in later times, were shipped around the world. In the 13th century, the Sultan of Egypt established an embassy with Alfonso X of Castile and sent zebras as gifts. This trait of gift-giving continued throughout other cultures for many centuries. 

Zebras made their way into Britain in 1762 and became a source of fascination when Queen Charlotte go one for a wedding present. Several people flocked to Buckingham Palace to see it.

There were attempts to domesticate zebras, but they proved unsuccessful. Unfortunately, because of hunters, they have become more aggressive, making domestication even more difficult. Any thought of making the zebra-like domestic horses would be lost.

FAQs

Q: Is A Zebra A Horse?

A: The zebra and the horse have the same ancestors, but a zebra is different from a horse.

Q. Is A Zebra White Or Black?

A. A zebra is usually white and black striped but can present as one color in some cases.

Q: How Do Zebras Protect Themselves In The Wild?

A: Zebras tend to stay in groups, and the males are usually the protectors. They are also able to camouflage themselves.

Q: What Do They Sound Like?

A: Zebras produce a barking sound, and also, in some species, they make a grunting sound like a hippo.

Q: Why Do Zebras Sometimes Kill Their Babies?

A: Plains Zebras often see babies from other groups as a threat and will kill them. Other species of zebras do not usually kill their young.

Conclusion

Zebras have been around for a long time and hold a fascinating history. There are three different species of zebras, and while they hold similarities, they have quite a few differences. It is essential to respect these animals and to preserve this unique animal.

 For more information on these beautiful animals, check out: animalcorner.org/animals/zebras/

References

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