Top 5 Unexpected Things You Might Not Know About Zebras

Updated on March 10, 2019
Jana Louise Smit profile image

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


1. They are Prehistoric

Today, these pajama-striped beauties look like modern ponies or stocky horses. However, they are quite prehistoric in the sense of when zebras first appeared on Earth. Four million years ago, proto-horses galloped about and around this time, zebras broke away from that group to become a distinctive species. There are currently three species and over ten subspecies. Researchers believe the first to appear was the Grevy's Zebra. Remarkably, the species is millions of years old and still exists. Unfortunately, the Grevy's Zebra is also the rarest of the zebra clan.

2. Each to Their Own

There are cases where zebras sire foals with farm animals like horses or donkeys. However, in the wild, the different kinds of zebra don't mate with each other. Considering that their territories often overlap, and they all basically look the same, it's remarkable that the animals avoid dropping foals in the opposite camp.

In the case of zebras, this behaviour is very smart. Each zebra species carry a different number of chromosomes but how they know interbreeding would be disastrous, is a mystery. Humans found this out the hard way. In the past, conservationists decided to help the rare Grevy's Zebra by introducing mates in the form of the more common Mountain Zebra. The tragic result — a massive number of miscarriages — ended the program.

Living Fossil

A Grevy's Zebra, the oldest species and what scientists believed the Hagerman Horse looked like.
A Grevy's Zebra, the oldest species and what scientists believed the Hagerman Horse looked like. | Source

3. The 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. Here are some interesting facts!

  • It was the most ancient member of the family Equus (this group includes all living horses, donkeys and zebras)
  • The species was technically not a zebra, but America's first horse. Some experts suspect they represent an earlier evolutionary step; as the ancestor of the continent's first real horses
  • The Hagerman Horse was striped and resembled the rare Grevy's Zebra
  • The animal was first identified in 1928, when a number of Hagerman Horses were found by a cattle rancher in Idaho.

4. Forget the Saddle

Many people have asked this question — 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 us first give credit where it's due. Yes, some trainers managed to get zebras to pull carts or become relatively tame. However, the species cannot be fully domesticated. Compared to horses, donkeys and mules, zebras are more unpredictable and aggressive. Zoo keepers know that these animals stay dangerous, regardless of how long they receive human contact.

Zebras prefer the company of their own and are hardwired to defend themselves. Kicking and biting comes naturally. Zebras also battle for mating rights and food. The horse is another reason why humans won't go the extra mile to domesticate the zebra. The horse is not as difficult and much more versatile, considering the different working breeds and trainability. At the end of the day, the consensus is this — why bother with temperamental zebras when the required niche is already filled by horses, donkeys and mules?

Circus Zebras

This old photo was taken in the Netherlands. These zebras were part of a circus and trained to tolerate halters. The animals were probably more for show than part of any act.
This old photo was taken in the Netherlands. These zebras were part of a circus and trained to tolerate halters. The animals were probably more for show than part of any act. | Source

5. Golden Zebras

In 1998, a zebra mare went into labour. Her name was Oreo, and she was a Burchell's zebra, one of the most abundant species. Her own stripes were black-and-white, but during her lifetime, Oreo produced three foals with light tan stripes. The first was stillborn and the second died of liver complications, aged five months. The third, a filly, was born in 1998. To everyone's delight, she was also “golden,” a striking mix of yellowish stripes and blue eyes.

The filly managed to survived and was named Zoe. She lived at a private sanctuary in Hawaii, where she died in 2017, aged 19. The breathtaking coats ran in the family, since other zebras related to Zoe were also born golden. Sadly, their genetic integrity is being compromised because inbreeding is used to produce more foals for attraction to their particular zoos.

Was Zoe an albino? Experts still argue that point. The mare, her two deceased siblings and her affected relatives were all born with a pigmentation disorder. That much was clear and agreed upon. However, some scientists feel that albinism is a complete lack of colour. In that case, the golden zebras are not albinos. Instead, they could have a condition known as hypopigmentation, something that refers to reduced amounts of the pigment called melanin. Other experts insist that albinism also includes the reduction of any pigment — which makes Zoe and her family a bunch of albinos. Either way, there is no arguing the fact that golden zebras are among the most stunning rare animals on the planet.

No Ordinary Joe

The way zebras are often dismissed as ordinary could be why interesting facts about them remain largely dormant. Zebras are more than a display in zoos or a thirty-second clip on television. These are living prehistoric creatures that retained their independence whereas the horse and donkey folded to domestication. Their genes once produced the famous, now-extinct Quagga and on occasion, delightfully weird golden stripes. At the end of the day, upon thorough inspection, very little about them is ordinary.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Jana Louise Smit


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      • Ellison Hartley profile image

        Ellison Hartley 

        15 months ago from Maryland, USA

        I have always loved zebras and this was all new to me! Thanks for sharing!


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