17 Things You Didn't Know About Zebras

There's so much more to zebras than their memorable coat patterns. Joel Shawn/Shutterstock

Few animals are as striking as the zebra in a purely graphic sense. Giant pandas, penguins and skunks may share the same bold color combination, but the zebra’s contrasting stripes make it an animal that stands out from the crowd. Its dazzling mod pattern has made the zebra a muse to fashion designers, a mascot for advertisers, and a delight to legions of zoo visitors. But the zebra is much more than a horse with stripes. Consider the following:

1. Why, Oh Why, Does a Zebra Have Those Stripes?

Theories abound. A zebra’s distinctive stripes were once thought to offer protection, providing camouflage against grasses and making individual animals difficult to single out in a herd when viewed by predators. But 2016 research found that the stripes aren't for camouflage at all because by the time predators can see zebra stripes, they will already have heard or smelled their prey.

Another long-standing theory is that stripes keep zebras cool. There's been plenty of back-and-forth on that theory, but it was the work done in the zebras' natural habitat that finally provided a more satisfying answer: The stripes are used to control body temperature, and because the black stripes heat up faster than the white stripes, the zebra has a secret heat-release mechanism, according to Science Daily. They erect the hair in the black stripes, releasing extra heat during the hottest part of the day.

Another team of scientists hypothesized that the stripes may fend off flies and other biting insects. In a study in PLOS One, researchers tested if flies would land on horses more than zebras, and they were correct. They observed that flies hovered around zebras just as much as horses, but they weren't landing on zebras as often. Upon further observation, they realized the zebra's stripes caused the flies to become disoriented so they end up bumping into a zebra instead of successfully landing. They also noticed that zebras flick away flies more frequently and faster than horses. The scientists were quick to note though that this is just one theory and that stripes could serve multiple purposes.

2. There Are Three Species of Zebra and in the Wild

And they are only found in Africa. They include: Burchell's zebra, also known as the common or plains zebra; Grevy's zebra, named for Jules Grevy, a 19th century French president who received one from Abyssinia as a gift; and the Equus or mountain zebra. All three belong to the genus Equus, which includes horses and donkeys.

3. The Skin of a Zebra Is Black

Does that makes its stripes white? The conundrum ensues.

4. Each Species of Zebra Has Different Types of Stripes

Close up of a zebra's head
Can you tell where I'm from by looking at my stripes?. Michal Ninger/Shutterstock

They vary in width and pattern distribution. Curiously, the farther south on the African plains the zebra lives, the father apart its stripes will be. Within each species, no two zebras have the same stripes; they are as unique as fingerprints.

5. Zebras Weigh Anywhere From 400 to 850 Pounds

It depends on the species. The Grevy's zebra is the largest wild member of the horse family.

6. Zebras Are Social Animals

group of zebras
Family is important to zebras. Chantal de Bruijne/Shutterstock

And live in small family groups that combine into large herds. Even when grouped in a massive swath of other zebras, they remain close to their families.

7. Always Looking for Danger

Constantly on the watch for lions and hyenas, a herd helps with all of its extra eyes to monitor for danger. If a zebra is attacked, other zebras come to its defense and form a circle around it to ward off the predator.

8. Zebras Are Often Found Mingling With Antelope Herds

It adds extra protection against threats.

9. In the Wild, Zebras Usually Live to Be Between 20 to 30 Years Old

They can live to the age of 40 in zoos.

A zonkey.
A zonkey. By Nora Marie/Shutterstock

10. We Have Been Cross-Breeding Zebras With Other Equines Since at Least the 19th Century

The resulting "zebroids" come in a number of newfangled names, from zedonk, zorse and zebra mule to zonkey (pictured above) and zebrule.

11. Zebras Don't Run as Quickly as Horses

They max out at around 35 mph, but they have excellent endurance and their zigzagging gait helps them better evade predators.

12. A Cornered Zebra Rears, Kicks and Bites in Defense

There have been numerous recorded cases of zebras killing lions, generally by a swift kick to the head that at the very least breaks the jaw, resulting in the cat's eventual starvation.

13. Not Fans of Domestication

Humans have certainly tried, but zebras, in general, have been resistant to our domestication efforts. Bless their stubborn souls; although perhaps more accurately, it's their aggressive nature that has spared them such a fate — the same nature that allows them to survive on the plains of Africa.

While eccentric zoologist Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868-1937), 2nd Baron Rothschild, was able to train zebras to draw his carriage through London (pictured above in 1895), he understood that zebras would be unsuitable for riding and further domestication.

14. Oldest Male Takes Charge

During the zebras' annual migration in search of food and water, it's the responsibility of the oldest male in the family to ensure that the group never strays too far from water.

15. Burchell's Zebra Are Listed as Near Threatened by the Iucn

Both the Grevy's zebra and the Equus zebra are listed as endangered. Humans are the biggest threat to zebra populations; hunting and habitat destruction are to blame for their decline.

16. A Famous Mascot

Of all the Fruit Stripe Gum mascots, the zebra "Yipes" has outlasted the rest and has become the main "spokesanimal." In 1988, Yipes was made into a promotional bendy figure, one that can fetch relatively high prices in the toy collector’s market.

17. Babies Walk Soon After Birth

zebra foal
Zebras are quick learners. H. van der Winden/Shutterstock

And last but not least, zebra foals can get up and walk a mere 20 minutes after they’re born. All together now: "Awwww!"