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Top 5 Ways Zebras Might Surprise You

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


The zebra is an icon of Africa and a popular face in zoos worldwide. Perhaps, because they're so "ordinary" and familiar, some of the best facts about them remain unknown.

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 at all!

1. They Are Prehistoric Animals

Today, these pyjama-striped beauties look like modern ponies or stocky horses. Don’t be fooled, though—they are actually quite prehistoric. They existed long before modern humans arrived on Earth.

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. Their Stripes Remain Unsolved

Why are zebras striped? As odd as it seems, scientists cannot find an answer.

In the past, it was accepted that zebras were striped for camouflage. But this was dismissed when the theory did not stand up to scrutiny. The stripes do not blend zebras together or hide them at night, which were the most popular suggestions regarding their "camouflage."

Another plausible theory suggested that the stripes played a role in choosing a mate. However, that also proved to be false.

An unusual experiment might have cracked the case. Researchers dressed horses with zebra-patterned blankets and the stripes appeared to confuse flies so much that the insects failed to land on the animals. When real zebras and dark horses were observed, the researchers also noticed that almost no flies landed on the zebras but hundreds landed on the horses.

The idea still needs to be accepted by the whole scientific community but the purpose of zebra stripes could be as simple as keeping pests at bay.

A pair of mountain zebras busy settling an argument.

A pair of mountain zebras busy settling an argument.

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 animal is 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 have forged unshakable instincts to survive. At the top of the list is self-defence so kicking and biting come naturally. Zebras also 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.

These days, most people agree that amelanosis (or amelanism) is responsible for golden zebras. This is another pigmentation abnormality that is characterized by a lack of melanin.

Either way, 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.