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The Stripes On Zebras Have Nothing To Do With Camouflage But A Lot To Do With Insects

The functional significance of zebra stripes has generated much interest and many hypotheses yet few have been tested. Comparative data shows that striping is found in areas of particularly high biting fly annoyance, whereas other hypotheses cannot account for zebras’ infamous colouration. Image: Tim Caro

The stripes seen zebras have evolved mainly to repel biting flies and not as camouflage against predators as we thought, according to new research.

The zebra’s stripes have long thought to be a camouflage to disrupt predatory attack and also, perhaps, to keep the animal cooler and may also have a social function.

However, no studies have tested these hypotheses together.

Professor Tim Caro of the University of California, Davis, and colleagues examine the regional distribution of current and extinct species, which includes both those with and without stripes.

Predator avoidance has been recently suggested to be the main evolutionary driver for zebra stripes but certain flies are known to avoid black and white surfaces.

The authors find that the distribution of striped species overlaps with the ranges where these flies are active. They note that this is consistent across different types of striping including facial, neck, flank, rump and leg.

The results of the study are published in the journal Nature Communications.

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