Outdoors just for kids: Why zebras wear stripes

2014-04-10T00:00:00Z Outdoors just for kids: Why zebras wear stripes The Billings Gazette

Why zebras have stripes is a question that has puzzled people for more than 100 years.

Some of the ideas suggested for their black-and-white markings were: a form of camouflage; a way to confuse attacking animals like lions or cheetahs; a way to manage heat; and having something to do with living in groups.

Now scientists say they have discovered what they think is the real reason: the stripes are a way for zebras to avoid being bitten by horseflies and tsetse flies. For some reason, the flies tend to avoid black-and-white striped surfaces.

Why zebras may have evolved to have stripes, when other hoofed African animals did not, may be because they have such short hair. With shorter hair, the flies could more easily bite the animals.

Anyone who has spent time outdoors in the spring and summer has stories about how annoying biting bugs can be. Humans have tried all kinds of ways to avoid being bitten by bugs — from liquid chemicals applied to the skin, to clothes with chemicals in them and by burning chemicals like citronella.

So it’s no wonder that animals would try to find ways to protect themselves from annoying biting bugs. But now the question for scientists is: Why do some flies avoid black-and-white striped surfaces? Maybe we’ll all be wearing black-and-white striped clothing in the future when we go camping or hiking, looking like human zebras.

— Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Brett French

Outdoors editor for the Billings Gazette.

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