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Why the zebra has stripes

Herd Of zebra At Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. Photo: Bigstock.

Where did the zebra get his stripes? Or rather, why?

This has been studied over the years, with various theories proposed: to confuse predators, provide camouflage, regulate body temperature, aid in social interaction and to repel insects, according to National Geographic. The two that have had the best results in studies over the years are repelling insects and confusing predators.

A scientific team headed by Tim Caro, a wildlife biologist at the University of California-Davis, mapped the range of zebras as well as horses and asses, noting striping on their bodies. This was compared to the five hypotheses about the purpose of zebra stripes using variables such as predator ranges, wooded areas, temperatures and distribution of biting flies. The best overlap was with biting flies.

“I was amazed by our results,” said Tim Caro in the UC-Davis announcement. “Again and again, there was greater striping on areas of the body in those parts of the world where there was more annoyance from biting flies.”

The findings were just published in the journal Nature Communications, and the study supports a previous one done by European researchers in 2012. Scientists used boards to simulate zebra stripes and found that flies tended to stay away from them.

And now, this solution breeds another question: Why don’t biting flies like stripes?

Pam Tobey is the graphics editor of the Morning Mix Web team at The Washington Post and a member of the Presentation Desk’s Information Design graphics team.

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