How zebras got their famous black-and-white stripes has been a long-standing mystery, and now scientists may have finally found the answer. New research says zebra stripes help these animals keep cool in the hot African savannah.
A team from the University of California made this temperature connection after studying stripe patterns on zebras at 16 different locations and comparing them with 29 environmental factors such as heat, biting flies and predation, among others.
Each animal's stripes are as unique as human fingerprints - no two are exactly the same. According to National Geographic, some have wide black and white stripes over their entire bodies, whereas others display thinner markings, which do not extend to the legs.
Prior research has attempted to explain zebras' distinctive coats. For example, some suggest that they use their stripes to ward of flies that are attracted to large areas of single-colored fur. Others say they act as a sort of camouflage, confusing predator lions when they're running in a herd. However, none of these theories has thus been proven to be true. Lions are unfazed by the stripes of their prey, and only some species of biting flies are put off by the patterns.
And now, according to this new study, the mystery has finally been solved. Researchers report in the journal Royal Society Open Science that only one correlation made sense.
"[W]e found that temperature successfully predicts a substantial amount of the stripe pattern variation observed in plains zebra. As this association between striping and temperature may be indicative of multiple biological processes, we suggest that the selective agents driving zebra striping are probably multifarious and complex," the researchers wrote.
Specifically, lower temperatures meant fewer or fainter stripes and higher temperatures meant more or darker stripes.
It is common knowledge that the color black absorbs heat while its white opposite reflects heat, so researchers believe that this simple explanation has something to do with the unique stripes of zebras. That is, the pattern might create certain air movement that is cooling for these animals basking in the sun. But more research is needed to say for sure.
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