A child said that a zebra is a horse in striped pajamas. Of course, zebras are not horses, and they don’t wear pajamas. But have you ever wondered why zebras wear stripes? And I have another question—are they white animals with black stripes or black animals with white stripes?
There are at least five possible answers to why zebras wear stripes. Probably the best known is so they can hide in the tall grass. But not all zebras live in areas with tall grass. Also, their main predators (lions and hyenas) are not good at seeing far away. They are more likely to smell zebras before they see them.
Another possibility is that the stripes help to repel flies. In a study published in 2020, researchers put rugs on horses to test that theory. They draped solid-color rugs on some horses and striped or checked rugs on others. They found that fewer flies landed on the horses with striped or checked rugs, and those biting African horseflies carry diseases that can be fatal for zebras.
Still, another idea is that stripes help zebras stay cool. The black and white areas create differences in heat exchange patterns causing air to move over the zebra’s body. So we think the stripes make the zebras look “cool” too.
Every zebra has a different stripe pattern, like how every person has a different fingerprint. So maybe this allows the zebras to identify each other. We don’t have to look at people’s fingers to tell who they are. Instead, we look at their faces. However, zebra faces look pretty much the same except for those different stripe patterns.
Maybe those stripes work in another way to evade predators. Perhaps they fool predators by what is called “motion dazzle.” A bunch of striped zebras moving around might confuse a predator in the way a person can become confused or dizzy watching striped objects in motion. So it makes sense that it would be hard to pick out one animal in a herd of moving zebras.
So if we wonder why zebras wear stripes, the answer is–we don’t know for sure. As far as the other question, zebras have black skin, and their default hair color is black. However, some hair follicles have turned off the melanocytes that produce the melanin that gives the hair its color. So those hairs are white. So, therefore, you could say that zebras are black with white stripes.
But that brings up the question of why are those melanin-free hair follicles so nicely arranged in beautiful stripes instead of randomly, resulting in a dull gray appearance. People appreciate beauty, and since we are created in God’s image, He must also be a fan of beauty. I want to suggest that God just likes to add a little extra flair to His creations. He has certainly created many beautiful things, and zebras are just one of many examples. Perhaps that’s why zebras wear stripes.
— Roland Earnst © 2021