Washington: A team of researchers has found that zebras don’t use their black and white stripes as some sort of camouflaging protection against predators.
The most longstanding hypothesis for zebra striping is crypsis, or camouflaging, but until now the question has always been framed through human eyes, said lead author Amanda Melin from the University of Calgary, Canada.
Melin added “We, instead, carried out a series of calculations through which we were able to estimate the distances at which lions and spotted hyenas, as well as zebras, can see zebra stripes under daylight, twilight, or during a moonless night.”
Tim Caro, a UC Davis professor, said “The results from this new study provide no support at all for the idea that the zebra’s stripes provide some type of anti-predator camouflaging effect. Instead, we reject this long-standing hypothesis that was debated by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace.”
They found that beyond 50 meters (about 164 feet) in daylight or 30 meters (about 98 feet) at twilight, when most predators hunt, stripes can be seen by humans but are hard for zebra predators to distinguish. And on moonless nights, the stripes are particularly difficult for all species to distinguish beyond 9 meters (about 29 feet.) This suggests that the stripes don’t provide camouflage in woodland areas, where it had earlier been theorized that black stripes mimicked tree trunks and white stripes blended in with shafts of light through the trees.
And in open, treeless habitats, where zebras tend to spend most of their time, the researchers found that lions could see the outline of striped zebras just as easily as they could see similar-sized, prey with fairly solid-colored hides, such as waterbuck and topi and the smaller impala. It had been earlier suggested that the striping might disrupt the outline of zebras on the plains, where they might otherwise be clearly visible to their predators.
In addition to discrediting the camouflaging hypothesis, the study did not yield evidence suggesting that the striping provides some type of social advantage by allowing other zebras to recognize each other at a distance.
While zebras can see stripes over somewhat further distances than their predators can, the researchers also noted that other species of animals that are closely related to the zebra are highly social and able to recognize other individuals of their species, despite having no striping to distinguish them. The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.