Although zebra are some of the most frequently seen mammals in the African savannas, these animals have many fascinating qualities that would surprise even the most seasoned safari veteran. By Tate Drucker
The plains zebra, otherwise known as the common zebra, is the most common and widely found species of zebra on the African continent. Their range spreads from South Africa up through Eastern Africa all the way to southern Ethiopia. With their iconic striped coats and playful disposition, they’re often a favourite sighting on safari, as their brightly patterned coats can catch the attention of anyone.
But despite their popularity, how well do you actually know Africa’s striped inhabitants? Here are 10 facts you may not know about zebra.
One of the oldest questions in the bush is ‘Why do zebras have their famous stripes?’ Scientists are not entirely sure, but most research points to camouflage. When zebras congregate in herds, the complex pattern makes it difficult for a predator to isolate one zebra from the rest of the group.
It’s also speculated that the stripes help zebras identify each other. Just like our fingerprints, the stripes are unique; no coat is exactly the same as another. It is thought that a mother zebra will position herself between her newborn foal and the rest of the herd so that the foal can imprint on her pattern.
Zebras are extremely social animals, and travel in large herds in which they do anything from look out for predators and alert one another to groom one another and look after the foals.
As opposed to animals like kudu, springbok, and bushbuck, who all tend to hide and move stealthily to avoid predators, plains zebra are rather noisy and active animals who do not make any such effort to hide when predators are near. In fact, if a zebra spots a predator (which could be a lion, spotted hyena, leopard, cheetah, or wild dog), it will begin grunting and snorting to alert the rest of the herd that danger is near. When a zebra is finally confronted with the predator and chooses to fight, its powerful backwards kick can be used to fight off its attacker (this kick is strong enough to break a lion’s jaw).
Plains zebra tend to integrate well with other grazers, and can often be seen coexisting peacefully with wildebeest, kudu, and impala, while some birds, such as the red-billed oxpecker, often eat the ticks and insects off the hides of zebra. Other birds, such as fork-tailed drongos, carmine bee-eaters or wattled starlings (shown below), will hitch rides on the zebras’ backs and feed on anything small and edible disturbed as they stroll through the veld.
Within 15 minutes of birth, a baby zebra is able to stand up on its own, and within an hour, it is able to walk and soon after run. When the zebra reaches full maturity after one year, it is able to run at a top speed of 64km/h.
While aggression amongst zebra is relatively uncommon, it’s not unknown, especially when it comes time for a stallion to fight off an imposing male who wants to breed with the stallion’s claimed mares. Inside a herd of zebra there are sub-groups, called “harems,” which consists of a male, up to six females, and any number of offspring. The male in the harem has sole breeding rights to the females, so when another male enters the equation and attempts to breed with one of these females, vicious fights involving biting and kicking often break out until one of the males retreats.
There are two main species of zebra in South Africa: the plains zebra and the mountain zebra. The easiest way to tell apart these two apart are by their stripes. Plains zebra have stripes that wrap around their bellies while mountain zebra have white bellies. Plains zebra also tend to have fainter stripes, called shadow stripes, between their black stripes. In mountain zebra the stripes tend to wind all the down to their hooves, whereas plains zebra’s stripes tend to fade on their legs.
The Cape mountain zebra has moved off the endangered species list thanks to a significant rise in numbers in recent times. From fewer than 80 individuals in the 1950s, the species is now estimated to stand at around 5,000. The increase is due to formal protection in national parks and nature reserves. In fact, Mountain Zebra National Park was founded in 1937 to protect this species. At the time the park had just 17 mountain zebras, today the herd numbers more than 350 animals.
The plains zebra found in South Africa’s parks is considered a subspecies. Its scientific name is Equus quagga burchellii; quagga refers to the zebra’s distinctive ‘kwa-ha’ call, while burchellii is a reference to John Burchell, the explorer and naturalist.