Similar to horses, zebras have barrel chests, long faces, and long necks. They sport lovely erect mains and have a tuft of hair on their tails, perfect for swatting away flies. And like horses, they walk on their tiptoes, with each of their long legs ending in a single toe covered with a hard, durable hoof.
But what sets the zebra apart from other equines is its distinct coat. The vertical stripes slash across its neck and body, then curve horizontally around the rump and legs. Each zebra’s stripes are unique to the individual and make them recognisable from the herd. When a foal is born, its stripes start out as slightly more brown but then become darker with age. There are many theories about why zebras evolved their stripes, and it seems that perhaps the most likely answer is that the stripes function as a way to deter biting insects like tsetse flies and mosquitos.
The three species of zebra differ slightly in appearance, although it may be quite difficult to distinguish between them from a distance. Grévy’s zebras are the tallest of the three, with thin stripes that do not reach all the way to the belly. The plains zebra has what is called “shadow stripes,” slightly lighter stripes in between the dark, prominent stripes. In contrast, mountain zebras’ stripes do not flow all the way to its belly, leaving a white stretch of skin that is clearly visible, similar to the Grevy’s zebra. However, mountain zebras have a conspicuous dewlap, a flap of skin hanging from its jaw down its neck, which both Grévy’s and the plains zebras lack.
Bonus zebra: Quaqqa (Equus quagga) The quagga was a plains zebra that lived in South Africa until extinction in the late 19th century. Its unique colouring of a striped head and neck fading into a solid coat towards its rump made it look something like a cross between a zebra and a horse.
Range & habitat
Grévy’s, plains and mountain zebras inhabit distinctly different habitats with only some overlapping of range here and there. All three species are found in Eastern and Southern Africa in a variety of savannahs, shrublands, woodlands, grasslands, and mountainous regions.
Grévy’s zebras live mostly in northern Kenya, in Acacia bushland, and on barren plains. The plains zebra’s range of treeless grasslands flows from southern Sudan to eastern and southern Africa, staying clear of deserts and wetlands. Meanwhile, the mountain zebra, as indicated by its name, prefers mountainous areas, with their habitat, found mostly in Southern and South-Eastern Africa.
Zebras are what is known as hindgut fermenters, which means that they can extract nutrition out of low-quality feed such as grass and bark. Zebras are for the most part grazers, but will browse when their preferred food source is unavailable, and spend as much as 80% of their day feeding.
Plains zebras play a particularly interesting role in the ecosystem, as they are pioneer gazers, nibbling and feeding on the top-most layer of grass, thereby opening up the grassland for more specialised grazers looking for the short grasses tucked below.
Behaviour & lifestyle
Zebras move around in herds made up of one stallion, many mares and their offspring. These groups can be quite closed, like the harems of plains and mountain zebras, or more fluid and open as with the Grévy’s zebra.
A herd of zebra can often be seen moving in what looks like single file, with the highest-ranking mare at the front, followed by her offspring, down the hierarchy, and ending in the family stallion bringing up the rear.
Bachelor plains and mountain zebras will form herds of free-roaming males, sometimes joined by young females as in the case of mountain zebras. However, Grévy’s zebra stallions contrastingly establish territories over vast areas. And whereas plains and mountain zebra stallions will abduct females from other harems to make their own, Grévy’s zebra stallions will simply dominate a female that happens to pass through their territory.
Mares give birth to one foal at a time. When foals are born, they quickly struggle to their feet and are able to run within the first hour of their life. Grévy’s zebras may leave their offspring in groups under the care of a territorial male while they search for water.
Fun zebra facts
Meet the zebra
Zebras drinking at a waterhole make fantastic photo opportunities. Where did you last have the chance to observe these creatures on an African Safari? Let us know in the comments below!
Read about more safari animals.
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