Zebras are known for their eye-catching patterns, but this polka-dotted foal recently photographed in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve really stands out from the herd. As National Geographic reports, the zebra baby likely has pseudomelanism, a rare pigment condition that's been observed in the wild just a handful of times.
Nature photographer Frank Liu saw the zebra foal while looking for rhinos in the savannah wilderness preserve. After initially confusing the specimen for a different type of animal, he realized upon closer inspection that it was actually a plains zebra born with spots instead of stripes. The newborn foal was named Tira after the Maasai guide Antony Tira who first pointed him out.
A typical zebra pattern is the result of pigment cells called melanocytes, which are responsible for the black base coat, and melanin, which gives the animal its white stripes. (So if you've ever wondered if zebras are white with black stripes or black with white stripes, the answer is the latter). In Tira and other zebras with pseudomelanism, the melanocytes are fully expressed, but a genetic mutation causes the melanin to appear as dots rather than unbroken stripes.
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Though rare, this isn't the only time a zebra with pseudomelanism has been documented in nature. Pseudomelanistic zebras have also been spotted in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, but Liu believes this could be the first time one was found in the Masai Mara preserve.
Zebra stripes aren't just for decoration. The distinct pattern may act as camouflage, bug repellant, and a built-in temperature regulation system. Without these evolutionary benefits, Tira has a lower chance of making it to adulthood: Pseudomelanistic zebra adults are rarely observed for this reason. But as Liu's photographs show, the foal has the protection and acceptance of his herd on his side.
[h/t National Geographic]