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5 Unexpected Things You Might Not Know About Zebras

Jana worked in animal welfare with abused and unwanted pets. She loves sharing her hands-on experience regarding domestic and wild critters.

Almost everyone has seen a zebra at a zoo or on television, but few know just how unique these enigmatic equines really are.

Almost everyone has seen a zebra at a zoo or on television, but few know just how unique these enigmatic equines really are.

The zebra is an African icon and a mainstay at zoos worldwide. Because they're so familiar, some of the best facts about them sit on the shelf collecting dust. All dramatics aside, these prehistoric creatures kept their independence when the horse and donkey folded to domestication. Their genes produced the famous, now-extinct quagga and—on occasion—foals with delightfully golden stripes. At the end of the day, zebras are not so ordinary after all.

1. They Are Prehistoric Animals

Today, these pajama-striped beauties look like modern ponies or stocky horses. Don’t be fooled, though—they are actually quite prehistoric. They were around long before humans' ancestords had gathered in communities large enough to be considered towns.

During this era, proto-horses galloped about. They were so small that any attempt to saddle and ride one would have, frankly, squashed the animal. But from these dainty ancestors came all that neighs today. Zebras were “born” as a distinct species when they broke away from this group four million years ago.

The zebra clan evolved into three species and more than ten subspecies. The first to appear was the Grévy's zebra. You don’t have to search a museum’s “extinct animals” section to see this incredibly ancient species. Grévy's zebras still exist. Yay! Unfortunately, they could still end up in a museum. The oldest zebbers are also the rarest. Not yay.

Grévy's zebras (pictured here) are the rarest extant zebra species.

Grévy's zebras (pictured here) are the rarest extant zebra species.

2. Different Zebra Species Do Not Interbreed

When given the chance, zebras sire foals with horses and donkeys. Seeing that zebras romance other equines, it might come as a surprise that they do not mate with other species of zebra. They avoid dropping foals in other camps even though their territories overlap and everybody looks the same.

This behaviour is smart. Each species of zebra has a different number of chromosomes. Due to this difference, interbreeding would be disastrous. How zebras "know" this is a mystery, but humans discovered the truth the hard way. In the past, conservationists tried to boost Grévy's zebra numbers with an insemination project using the more common mountain zebra. The tragic result—a massive number of miscarriages—ended the program.

A pair of mountain zebras settle an arguement.

A pair of mountain zebras settle an arguement.

3. There Was Once an American Zebra

Three million years ago, a striped creature inhabited the region around Lake Idaho. The Hagerman horse, as it became known, was the closest candidate for the Americas' very own zebra. Alas, this one is clearly no longer around, which is a pity. Imagine waving your fist in anger when the most ancient member of the equine family grazes through your prize petunias. Good times.

The animal was first identified in 1928 when a cattle rancher found several skeletons. Their name reflects their place on the "tree of hooves" (the equine family tree). The species was technically not a zebra but rather America’s first horse. That being said, it is interesting to note that the Hagerman horse was striped and closely resembled the rare Grévy's zebra.

4. They Resist Domestication Like Nobody’s Business

Many people have asked, “Can zebras be domesticated?” The answer is somewhat grey. For decades, attempts have been made to saddle this bronco, and most have failed. But let’s give credit where it's due.

Yes, some trainers have managed to get zebras to pull carts or turn relatively tame. However, the species cannot be fully domesticated. Compared to horses, donkeys, and mules, zebras are more unpredictable and aggressive. Zookeepers know that the animals stay dangerous regardless of how long they receive human contact.

But why? The answer is simple—zebras are prey. After being hunted for millions of years, they forged unshakable instincts to survive. At the top of the list is self-defence. Kicking and biting come naturally. Indeed, zebras engage in vicious battles over mating rights and food. You can let go of the Flicka fantasy, too. When given the choice to mingle with people or other zebras, they prefer the company of their own.

Reduced melanin levels caused the zebra pictured here to have a unique appearance.

Reduced melanin levels caused the zebra pictured here to have a unique appearance.

5. Golden Zebras Are Real

In 1998, a zebra mare went into labour. Her name was Oreo, and she was a Burchell's zebra. Her own stripes were black and white, but during her lifetime, she produced three foals with tan stripes. The first was stillborn, and the second died from liver complications five months after birth. The third, a filly, was the one born in 1998. To everyone's delight, she was also “golden,” showing a striking mix of yellowish stripes and blue eyes. Called Zoe, she lived at a sanctuary in Hawaii where she died at age 19.

But was she an albino? Experts still argue that point. The mare and her two siblings were born with a pigmentation disorder. That much is clear and agreed upon. The difference in opinion comes down to the definition of albinism. Some say an albino animal has no colour and should be white. In that case, golden zebras could have hypopigmentation (a reduced amount of the dark pigment melanin). Others insist that the definition of albinism is broader and includes individuals with reduced melanin. Either way, the Zoe was a strikingly beautiful animal.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Jana Louise Smit


Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 28, 2020:

That is interesting that zebras do not mate with different species of their own kind. Thanks for telling us about that and other facts.

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