Every zebra has its own arrangement of stripes, much as humans have fingerprints and elephants have individual ear markings. Each species has a general pattern which varies in some way from other species but within a species, each individual has a unique pattern. Despite having such a contrast of black and white and being so bright, the stripes actually break up the outline of the body. This 'disruptive colouration' makes it difficult for predators to pick out an individual animal. Zebras have black skin under the stripes and the shiny coats help dissipate the heat.
The zebra looks so much like a horse that it was inevitable that efforts would be made to domesticate and 'tame' them. It was once very fashionable to drive (or ride) zebras. Way back in 1907, Nairobi's first doctor, Rosendo Ribeiro, used a zebra to make house-calls. Zebras were also used in harness. In A Pictorial History of Performing Horses, Charles Philip Fox tells of a ten zebra liberty act, as well as a team of four in harness. In East Africa, because Grevy's zebra was immune to the tsetse fly, it was used as a draught animal. In general though, the zebra is too highly strung to function well as a riding or draught animal. Their flight instincts have not been dulled by centuries of domestication and they are jumpy and inclined to panic when put under stress.
Zebras belong to the horse family, Equidae, and are medium sized herbivores. They are endemic to southern and central Africa. Most live on grasslands and savannas. Grevy's zebra also lives in sub desert and arid grasslands. The zebra is a very adaptable grazer. It will often be the first into tall or wet pastures. Wildebeests and others then follow.
The mane of the zebra is short and erect, the tail is tufted and the coat of course has the most beautiful black and white stripes. The erect mane and striping on the legs is indicative of primitive horse breeds and can be seen on Przewalski's wild horse and some individuals of Great Britain's endemic mountain and moorland breeds such as the Highland.
There are three species of zebra and several subspecies.
The mountain zebra (Equus zebra) is endangered. There are two subspecies of mountain zebra – Hartmann's and the Cape. These are the smallest of the zebras.
Hartmann's mountain zebra is named after the German geographer, explorer and politician, Dr George Hartmann. It looks whiter than the Cape because the black stripes are narrower and more widely spaced. The stripes do not meet on the belly but the leg stripes are present right to the top of the hooves and may wrap round the entire leg. It has a zipper-like stripe over the spine and top of the tail. Both subspecies of mountain zebra have a dewlap. This is a square flap of skin on the underside of the upper part of the throat. The male has a larger dewlap than the female.In the image below, the dewlap can be seen on the underside of the throat.
Stallions are usually heavier weighing up to 370kg. The height of an adult ranges from 120 to 130cm. Hartmann's zebras live for 25 to 30 years. Foaling is mostly during the rainy season when there is most grass available but can be during any season. When water is scarce, they will paw at dry river beds sometimes digging out holes up to a metre deep. They are very sure-footed and excellent climbers, mixing happily with other grazers.
The Cape mountain zebra is one of the world's rarest mammals. The Mountain Zebra National Park in South Africa is home to around 200 to 230. The body is slightly smaller than that of the Hartmann's and they have a very prominent dewlap. The nose is a reddish brown. The stomach is white, there are no shadow stripes and they have a gridiron pattern on the rump. A mare has her first foal at about five or six years of age. Most foals are born between November and March which is the rainy season.
Grevy's zebra (Equus grevyi) is the largest species and quite widespread though still endangered. The Ancient Romans called Grevy's zebra 'hippotigris' (horse tiger). It was once found throughout East Africa but the 2,000 to 2,500 individuals are now found mostly in northern Kenya. Its name commemorates the 1880s president of France, Jules Grevy. The head is long and narrow, somewhat like a mule and it has many narrow stripes. This species has adapted to a semi-arid environment and requires less water than the others. However it now has to cope with waterholes being blocked off. Overgrazing by domestic livestock is also putting pressure on the Grevy's as food supplies dwindle. Grevy's mark their territories with dung and urine.
The Plains zebra (Equus burchelli) (sometimes cited as Equus quagga) includes seven subspecies, some of which are extinct such as the quagga (Equus quagga quagga). Researchers are attempting to re-create the quagga by controlled cross-breeding. This species is stocky and sturdy. They are found on savannas varying from treeless grassland to open woodlands.
One subspecies, Burchell's, has a social system based on the family group. Fillies when first ready to breed will stand with the tail raised. She will straddle the legs and lower the head. This behaviour attracts stallions who will fight for her favours. Once bonded with a group, she will not display this behaviour. Habitat loss and competition for water is affecting Burchell's zebra much as it does many of the animals of East Africa. The colouring of the Burchell's zebra is off-white with shadow stripes. The leg markings may be missing altogether or will be indistinct.
Grant's zebra, another subspecies, has vertical stripes on the side which turn and become horizontal on the rump. The nose and hooves are black.
Most zebras are considered nomadic. Like horses, zebras are gregarious and travel in a family group of 5 to 20 indivicuals. There is a dominant stallion, mares and juveniles. Females establish a hierarchy with the youngest mares being bullied by the rest. Bonds are strengthened by social grooming. Herds of 1000 may congregate on good grazing or during migration but a group will still travel together. Bachelor groups join the huge herds, especially during migration.
During migration, herds start off at dawn and travel many miles before spending the night on short pastures which give them good vision against predators. A few remain on guard. Zebras often travel with other animals such as kudu, wildebeest, impala, giraffes and gnu.
Zebras stand 1.25 to 1.5 metres at the withers and weigh around 300kg, although some grow to 410kg or more. Zebras have keen eyesight and excellent hearing. They see well at night and communicate with braying, barking and soft, snorting sounds. They can reach 40mph over short distances and have a powerful kick.
Gestation lasts 11 to 12 months. The foals have a crest of hair down the neck and back right to the tail. They are born brown, black and white and adopt their adult colouring after about four months. Within minutes of their birth, they are trying to stand and after an hour can keep up with the mare. It is important for the foal to be strong and mobile as quickly as possible. Average foal mortality is about 50% with most deaths being due to attack by lions and hyenas. Young zebras leave the group voluntarily between the ages of one and four and form bachelor groups until their time comes to head a group. Young females are absorbed into a stallion's group.
The mountain species are most at risk of extinction but all are facing loss of habitat and fragmentation. Images of zebras care commonplace. It is hard to believe that they too could be losing the fight against extinction.