It appears that zebra stripes have nothing at all to do with camouflage and everything to do with thermal regulation. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images)

With apologies to Silicon Valley’s animal of the moment — the unicorn — zebras are still a powerful symbol for some business gurus of how to stand out, how to be unique and how to differentiate a company or brand from the crowd. Zebra stripes are typically thought of as wild, daring and nonconformist — just ask any fashionista.

However, we still don’t know why zebras have their stripes. The latest evidence from UCLA researchers appears to support the idea that the stripes affect the thermal regulation of zebra bodies. Before that, the theory was that the stripes helped to ward off parasitic insects such as tsetse flies and horseflies. And, before that, the most popular theory by far — dating all the way back to the 1870s and Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection — was that the zebra stripes acted as a form of camouflage against predators such as lions.

So how, then, did those zebra stripes ever become a symbol of how to stand out and be unique?

One reason might be that the very presence of a pack of zebras gathered together can be dazzling to human eyes. The name for a pack of zebras, in fact, is “a dazzle.” Alfred Russel Wallace once described how the “dazzle” effect might work in the evening or on moonlight nights:  “In twilight, they are not at all conspicuous, the stripes of white and black so merging together into a gray tint that it is very difficult to see them at a little distance.”

But now  the UCLA researchers have shown the camouflage theory to be incorrect. In fact, after thoroughly testing 29 different variables in 16 different sites in Africa, the researchers did not find any conclusive benefits that stripes correlated with the prevalence of either predators or tsetse flies. In other words, we may have been thinking about zebras all wrong from the very beginning.

Oops.


Those zebra stripes aren’t doing what you think they’re doing. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Instead, the scientists found that the definition of stripes along a zebra’s back most closely correlated with temperature and precipitation in a zebra’s environment. In a study published recently in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the researchers suggested that the stripes may do more to help zebras regulate their body temperature than to avoid predators and flies. In short, the alternating black and white stripes, heated to different temperatures by the African sun, might help to create small-scale breezes all over a zebra’s body.

“In contrast to recent findings, we found no evidence that striping may have evolved to escape predators or avoid biting flies,” the researchers write. “Instead, we found that temperature successfully predicts a substantial amount of the stripe pattern variation observed in plains zebra.”

So what does this ongoing search to find the true meaning of zebra stripes mean if you’re an innovator?

First of all, stop using the zebra as a symbol of something that is daring, exotic or eye-catching. There’s little to suggest that the zebra’s stripes are about standing out in a crowd. (Just ask any zebra that just barely managed to escape from a lion at twilight). Even if the camouflage theory has been disproved, zebra stripes are still more a symbol of how to blend in than how to stand out.

Secondly, be wary of misconceptions or biases you might be bringing to your work. The theory that zebra stripes offer a form of camouflage has lasted for more than a century. However, it turns out that zebra stripes do not exist to avoid becoming lunch on the African savanna – they seem to get a little overheated and need a little breeze to cool down.

Finally, and here’s probably the most profound insight — if you’re an innovator, it’s worth questioning all the bizarre legacy processes in your company. There’s probably a good reason why things are the way they are, even if you can’t figure it out right now. In the case of zebras, of course, these bizarre legacy processes are those stripes. Why did they get them — and why did they hold on to them for so long if there’s no evolutionary advantage to having them?

Remember the old adage that a camel is just a horse designed by a committee? In the same way, zebra stripes may have also been formed by an evolutionary committee. Some scientists have even suggested that stripes on different parts of the zebra’s body serve different roles – the torso stripes might distract predators, while the stripes on the lower regions of the zebra may help to ward off insects.

Looking to the animal kingdom for insights is still a valuable tool for innovators, and there’s a lot that the zebra can teach us. (Including how to avoid getting ulcers!) But just remember: the obvious answer is not always the right answer.