When asked what sound does a zebra make, Dan Davies of the Smithsonian Institution says
“Zebras make a variety of sounds, from barking to braying to almost a whinny.”
Davies served as the Zone Facilities Manager at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington DC for years.
“It’s technically called a bray. It’s almost like a mixture between a horse’s whinny and a donkey’s bray. Each individual is going to be either higher or lower-pitched, so members of the herd can recognize each other’s distinctive calls.”
Nichols, Hoofstock Manager at the Out of Africa wildlife park, asked other hoofstock keepers to describe the nearly ineffable zebras sound. Here is what they said when asked what sound does a zebra make:
“The wail of a hiccupping donkey”
“A hyena’s laugh that keeps getting cut off”
“A screechy dog bark”
“woo HOO!! woo HOO!! woo HOO!!”
The last of these 4 zebra sounds matches the name – and sound – of the quagga, an extinct species of zebra that was named by the African tribe of Hottentots, being an onomatopoeia of their distinct ‘kwa-ha-ha’ call.
Listen to the zebra vocalizing
The zebra’s high-pitched contact call or bray is so similar to the yapping of little dogs that some experts describe it as a bark. The zebra’s shrill bark sounds a bit wheezy, and consequently, others sometimes equate zebra sounds with hiccupping. To be sure, zebras make a variety of sounds and vocalisations. Have a listen to these zebra sounds:
Six distinctive sounds that zebra make
When German zoologist and zebra behaviorist Hans Klingel studied plains zebras in Ngorongoro Crater, he recorded six distinctive zebra calls. These sounds that zebras make could be described as:
- Neigh: a two-syllable alarm call in response to predators;
- Snort: a loud snort when moving into potentially treacherous tall grasses or underbrush that could hide predators;
- Nicker or whinny: a drawn-out, breathy grunt of satisfaction;
- Squeal: a short, high-pitched yelp from male zebras when bitten or hurt;
- Wail: a drawn-out cry from a young zebra in distress; and
- Bray or bark: the contact call made when the animal forces air in and then out to make the sounds “a-ha, a-ha, a-ha” with the first “a” higher in pitch. Other zebra experts transcribe the bray as “kwahaah” and “oug-ga.”
“Braying advertises territorial status,” says The Behavior Guide to African Mammals. Frequent loud braying is part of the male zebra’s courtship and dominance display.
Not each of the sounds that zebras make is characteristic of all three extant species of zebra. The three zebra species include the plains zebra that Klingel studied at Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Grévy’s zebra found in arid and semiarid environs in East Africa, and the mountain zebra, which makes its home in the rocky uplands of southwestern Africa.
Grévy’s zebras have two alarm calls, the loud snort described above and an additional quiet “i-hah” vocalization. In contrast, mountain zebras are less vocal than the other two species and emit a high-pitched, submissive call.
So the next time someone asks you, “What sound does a zebra make?” you can answer, “Well, that’s complicated.”
And that’s your lot for our take on the question ‘what sound does a zebra make’? Have you heard a noisy zebra? We’d love your input on what it sounds like. Join in using the comments section below!