It just took one seriously obsessed scientist, some horses and a couple zebra parkas.
I've wondered why zebras had stripes ever since I learned zebras existed. It has always felt like one of those cosmic mysteries, like "Which came first: the chicken or the egg?" and "How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?"*
For years, scientists tried to come up with an explanation. Some thought stripes must help zebras blend into the grasses to avoid lions, which is the worst explanation I've ever heard. You can't miss a striped zebra in the monotone savannah.
But I've got some incredible news, and I don't use that word lightly unless I'm being lazy. Scientists finally (probably) figured out why zebras have stripes. Drum roll please ...Flies. Apparently, bloodsucking flies don't like landing on striped animals.
My favorite part about this story is the way the scientists figured it out. Tim Caro, a biologist at the University of California at Davis, dressed a bunch of horses in zebra-striped parkas. I wish I could show you the zebra parkas, but the copyright gods will smite us if I do, so check out this one.
According to Caro, he was doing the horses a favor.
“There are enormous benefits to having a striped coat for a horse,” Caro told The Atlantic.
Caro compared the regular horses and the ones masquerading as zebras. He found horseflies had no problem spotting either group, but they were terrible at landing on the striped horses.
“You get a quarter as many landings,” Caro said. “The flies just can’t probe for a blood meal with the zebras.”
Caro also has a delightful photo on his website of himself dressed in a zebra robe.
* The answers, by the way, are "the egg" and "4."