Why Do Zebras Have Stripes? Scientists Uncover the Evolutionary Answer

First Posted: Jan 31, 2015 08:13 AM EST

How and why did zebras get their stripes? That's a good question and now, scientists may just have the answer. A team of researchers have examined zebras and have found that the amount and intensity of striping can actually be predicted by the temperature of the environment in which zebras live.

"While past studies have typically focused their search for single mechanisms, we illustrate in this study how the cause of this extraordinary phenomenon is actually much more complex than previously appreciated, with temperature playing an important role," said Thomas Smith, senior author of the new study, in a news release.

Previously, scientists have theorized that zebra stripes evolved for one, or a combination of four main reasons: confusing predators, protecting against disease-carrying insects, controlling body temperature and social cohesion. Yet previous studies have only focused on a single hypothesis.

In this latest study, the researchers examined the plains zebra, which is the most common of three zebra species and possesses a wide variety of stripe patterns. They analyzed zebras at 16 locations in Africa and considered more than two dozen environmental factors. This revealed that temperature was the strongest predictor of the striping.

On zebras in warmer climates, the stripes are bold and cover the entire body. In colder climates, though, the stripes are fewer in number and are lighter and narrower. This seems to indicate that stripes are important for controlling body temperature and is the main reason for the patterns that the stripes form.

The findings reveal a bit more about the unique striping found on zebras. In fact, it shows that regulating heat is probably the main reason why zebras have these differences in their stripes.

The findings are published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

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