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Zebra Stripes Help Keep the Animal Cool ... Or Not?

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Having black and white stripes is the most iconic characteristic of the zebra, but researchers have varying opinions on the purpose of the animal’s black and white coat.

There were theories that the stripes may be helping the zebra camouflage itself so that it can escape predators such as lions and also avoid the bites of flies that carry diseases. It is also believed that the coat helps control heat by producing small-scale breezes when the stripes heat up at different rates.

It appears that scientists now have a feasible answer to the mystery.

Brenda Larison from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, together with colleagues, wanted to investigate why zebra patterns are not alike. Some have more eye-popping patterns compared with others, so the researchers examined how different environmental factors affect the stripe styles of plain zebras living in seven different African countries.

For a new study, which was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science on Jan. 13, the researchers found that the animal's stripes have something to do with temperature as zebras living in hotter climates tend to be more heavily striped.

The researchers, in particular, discovered that the definition of the stripes along the back of the zebra is closely associated with the precipitation and temperature in the animal's environment. The stripes did not also appear to be correlated with the prevalence of lions and the disease-carrying tsetse flies.

Plain zebras were likewise observed to have the most defined torso stripes when they thrive in the northern, equatorial region of the range. Those with less-defined torso stripes, on the other hand, tend to be more prevalent in the cooler southern regions of the range.

The findings support the idea of thermoregulation, which means that the stripes were more likely helping the zebras regulate their body temperature and not actually camouflaging them against predators and avoiding large biting flies.

"We found that environment, particularly temperature, was a significant predictor of zebra stripe patterns across their entire range in Africa," said the researchers. "This was supported by the large amount of variation explained by the models containing these variables, as well as the successful predictions of striping characteristics at new sites."

Larison explained that the zebra needs to forage all throughout the day so it is more often in the open compared with other animals, so having an additional cooling mechanism can be very useful.

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