14 Zany Facts About Zebras

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Zebras are more than just striped members of the horse family. Some are rugged mountaineers, some have spots instead of stripes, and some of them bark like dogs. Read on to discover these and other bizarre facts about zebras. 

1. A ZEBRA’S COAT IS A GIANT BAR CODE—AND WE CAN SCAN IT.

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Every zebra has a unique pattern of stripes. And scientists can use the patterns like bar codes to identify individuals in a herd and keep track of them over time.

Compared to today’s methods, the first efforts to identify zebras by their stripes were pretty low-tech. Hans and Ute Klingel, a husband and wife team, pioneered stripe recognition with Grevy’s zebras back in the 1960s. First, they photographed a bunch of zebras. Then they developed the pictures in a dark room they erected right in the field. Next, they created a card index with coded, hand-written notes on each animal’s pattern. See a few of their cards here.

These days, special software can scan images of zebras and identify individuals by “reading” their stripes like bar codes. It can even compensate for changes in posture and weight, including pregnancy. 

2. ZEBRA STRIPES MAY SERVE AS BUG SPRAY OR AIR CONDITIONING. 

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For decades and decades, scientists have wondered why zebras have stripes. One prevailing theory held that the stripes confused predators, making it harder for, say, a lion to pick out an individual zebra from a stampeding herd. 

Lately, more intriguing theories have emerged. Some scientists think that stripes keep zebras cooler. The dark stripes soak up more sunlight than the light ones, and this stirs up eddies of wind that swirl heat away. Other researchers discovered that biting flies avoid striped patterns. And the two theories might be linked: Biting flies prefer hot temperatures, so they may be less likely to bite a cooler zebra. 

3. BUT ZEBRAS DON’T ALWAYS HAVE BLACK AND WHITE STRIPES. 

Yathin S Krishnappavia Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are three species of zebra, and many subspecies. They come in different sizes, body shapes, stripe patterns—and, to a certain extent, even colors. The white stripes can verge on cream and the dark stripes can be black or brown. Some subspecies have pale, shadowy stripes between the larger dark ones. Plus, there are all sorts of mutations and variations. The occasional zebra has spots and some are so pale they're almost entirely white

4. MOUNTAIN ZEBRAS ARE RUGGED.

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One of the three zebra species, the mountain zebra, lives mostly in hilly, rocky places in South Africa and nearby Namibia. It has especially hard, sharp hooves that help it climb and keep its balance in rugged terrain. And while this rugged critter can’t grow a mountain man beard, it does have a bizarre, prominent neck flap called a dewlap.

5. PLAINS ZEBRAS ARE SMALL AND NUMEROUS. 

Walter Voigts via Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

Plains zebras are the smallest. They’re also the most abundant—in fact, they’re the most numerous of all the wild members of the horse family. They roam across much of southeastern Africa. 

Plains zebras come in all sorts of subspecies, and there’s a lot of coat variation between. For example, as you travel farther south across Africa, plains zebras will have fewer stripes on their legs. Nobody’s sure why, but it may have something to do with temperature or populations of those biting flies. 

6. GREVY’S ZEBRAS ARE LARGE AND PRESIDENTIAL. 

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Found in Kenya and Ethiopia, Grevy’s zebras have a more donkey-like shape, with huge round ears. They’re the largest wild members of the horse family, and can weigh up to 990 lbs. (Yes, domestic horses get much bigger, but that’s because we’ve spent thousands of years breeding them into all sorts of shapes and sizes; some are enormous.) 

These zebras are named after a President of France. In 1882, Emperor of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) Menelik II presented one as a gift to French President Jules Grévy. Ever since then, they’ve been named in honor of Grévy.

7. TO TELL THEM APART, LOOK AT THE BUTT.

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There are plenty of useful field marks for distinguishing the zebra species, but one is to look at the pattern on the rump. Mountain zebras have a “gridiron” pattern of small stripes above their tail. Plains zebras have broad bands across the rear. Grevy’s zebras have a sort of triangle pattern on the rump, with lots of small lines near the tail. Once you learn these differences, you’ll tell them apart with ease—just be sure to explain to your safari companions why you’re so fascinated by zebra butts. 

8. ONE EXTINCT ZEBRA HAD A STRIPE-FREE BUTT. 

A quagga at the London Zoo in 1870. Image credit: Frederick York via Wikimedia // Public Domain

The quagga, a remarkable subspecies of the plains zebra, was mostly yellow-brown and un-striped below its shoulders. Native to South Africa, it was driven to extinction by European settlers and hunters. The last quagga died at the Amsterdam Zoo in 1883.

Incredibly, a group called the Quagga Project, based in South Africa, has been working to resurrect this subspecies. They pick plains zebras that look the most quagga-like and breed them together, hoping to awaken any quagga genes that may still be present. The project has drawn criticism, however: some argue that recreating an animal’s appearance isn’t the same as restoring its unique behavior and ecological role.

9. ZEBRA ROMANCE ISN’T EASY.

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Mountain zebras and plains zebras live in small groups consisting of one stallion (male) and a handful of mares (females). You may notice that this ratio is a little askew. Where do the “extra” males go? Stallions that haven’t secured a herd will gather to bro down in roving bachelor bands. Some of those bachelors may try to take over a pre-existing herd, but it's no easy task. First, a bachelor must defeat the lead stallion. Then, he waits for the females to warm up to him—which may take up to three years.

And then there’s the Grevy’s zebra. A mature Grevy’s stallion doesn’t seek to command a herd of females—he stakes out some land. Ideally, he claims a territory that has some nice food and water. Then he hunkers down and plays the waiting game. Female Grevy’s zebras are wanderers, and the stallion is hoping that the ladies will visit for some sustenance and perhaps romance. Young Grevy’s males who don’t have territories will buddy up into groups and also wander. Those territorial stallions tolerate their presence—that is, until a receptive female wanders by. Then things get ugly. (Don't click on that link unless you're comfortable with graphic zebra romance.)

10. DON’T RIDE A ZEBRA. 

No, really: don’t. Humans domesticated horses thousands of years ago, modifying their appearance and behavior and turning them into compliant, beloved companions. But zebras were never domesticated. It’s sort of like the difference between a poodle and a wolf. There are several reasons that humans domesticated horses instead of zebras, including a zebra’s ducking reflex. Watch this video to learn more.

11. ZEBRAS NEIGH, BRAY, AND … BARK.

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Zebras make all sorts of weird sounds. Mountain zebras whinny like a horse, Grevy’s zebras bray like a donkey, and plains zebras bark like dogs. Alarmed stallions may squeal or snort, and happy zebras may push air between their lips when they’re eating. 

12. ZEBRAS CAN MAKE ZORSES, ZONIES, ZEDONKS, AND MORE. 

A zedonk, or hybrid zebra-donkey. Image credit: Getty Images

Zebras can breed with other members of the horse family. The offspring come in an amazing variety of semi-striped patterns, and are usually sterile (meaning they can’t have young). Zorses are the offspring of horse stallions and zebra mares. Zedonks are the products of zebra stallions and donkey mares. Zonies come from zebras and ponies. And there are many more bizarre possibilities

13. ZEBRAS ARE IN TROUBLE.

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Two out of the three zebra species aren’t doing so well. Grevy’s zebras are in the deepest doo-doo: habitat loss, hunting, competition for food and water with domestic grazing animals, and disease have all taken their toll. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) labels them endangered and says they’ve “undergone one of the most substantial reductions of range of any African mammal.” There are only about 2000 of these big-eared zebras left.

Mountain zebras face similar threats, and are listed as Vulnerable, which is one rung better than Endangered. There are about 9000 left. 

Plains zebras, on the other hand, are in pretty okay shape. Despite local declines from habitat loss and hunting, their population is fairly stable

Preserving zebras is important because they’re amazing, and because they’re food for majestic predators like lions. But also… 

14. PLAINS ZEBRAS MAKE GRASSLANDS TASTIER.

For pickier grazers such as Thomson’s gazelles and wildebeest, zebras are a huge boon. Those striped heroes have special digestive systems that can quickly process lower-quality forage. Plains zebras are often the first to enter an un-grazed grassy area. They’ll munch on older, harder, less nutritious plants that other grazers can’t eat. Once the old stuff is cleared out, tender new growth pops up. More selective grazers will then wander in and eat the good stuff.

The Biologists and Activists Fighting to Save Endangered Tapirs in Costa Rica

Stephanie Vermillion
Stephanie Vermillion

Costa Rican biologist Esteban Brenes-Mora was just 5 years old the first time he saw a tapir, and he immediately fell in love with the large, unusual animal. "The tapir was walking on the beach close to Corcovado National Park," he says of the moment that helped impact his future career. "It was a highlight for me; it led me to do what I do now."

Twenty-five years later, Brenes-Mora is a tapir expert and founder of Nai Conservation, a Costa Rican organization that is working to save the endangered species from its worst enemy: humans. Tapirs have been around for some 35 million years, but deforestation, highways through its habitats, and poaching have caused their numbers to drop significantly. It's estimated that the population of the Baird's tapir as decreased by more than 50 percent in just the last three generations. And in turn, what hurts the tapirs hurts the environment.

A Baird's tapir resting on a beach in Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park.
A Baird's tapir resting on a beach in Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park.
Stephanie Vermillion

"Tapirs are considered gardeners of the forests; they plant seeds and have a big impact on enriching the soil," Brenes-Mora explains. "The tapirs are even saving us from climate change. There's evidence from the Amazon that when tapirs are gone from certain forests, carbon sequestration in those forests decreases."

Experts have warned that tapirs, and specifically the Baird’s tapir that Brenes-Mora saw on that beach as a child, may soon be classified as critically endangered if current trends are not addressed.

Thankfully, Brenes-Mora has a plan.

 

I’m in Costa Rica on assignment to create an awareness-building film about the endangered tapir species. My colleague Alisha and I have just wrapped one week documenting the work of Nai Conservation, the local tapir research and conservation organization Brenes-Mora founded in 2015, and we're putting the final touches on our film in one of the most heavily tapir-populated (and protected) habitats, Corcovado National Park.

Of course, seeing a tapir in the wild would add an important element to our film, but even after a full week with the passionate, driven team behind Nai Conservation, we haven't seen even one.

This isn't surprising, though; few locals ever encounter the elusive tapir. The Baird's tapir—Tapirus bairdii, or known locally as danta in Spanish—is one of four tapir species in the region. It's indigenous to Central America and is a mammalian relative of the rhinoceros and horse, though it looks much more hog-like than either of the two (it has no relation to either boars or pigs). It is largely nocturnal and spends most of its day resting, hidden in the rainforests before foraging for fruits and berries in the afternoon. This makes spotting one in the wild even more rare, but Brenes-Mora and the Nai team want us to see a tapir as badly as we do.

Biologist Esteban Brenes-Mora is the founder of Nia Conservation.
Biologist Esteban Brenes-Mora is the founder of Nai Conservation.
Stephanie Vermillion

Before launching Nai, Brenes-Mora spent six months in Malaysia after getting his biology degree, working with RIMBA, an NGO studying tigers, flying foxes, and other native wildlife. But since seeing that tapir on the beach when he was young, it had been his childhood dream to work with tapirs, and a fellowship with the Zoological Society of London gave him that chance. According to Brenes-Mora, the fellowships are meant to provide early-career conservationists and biologists an opportunity, through funding and mentorship, to get a foothold in their desired field. For him, that meant tracking tapirs through the highlands of Costa Rica's Talamanca Mountains.

One day in 2015, Brenes-Mora and a friend reached Cerro de la Muerte—Costa Rica's "mountain of death," the highest point on the mountain range. They were discussing creating a logo for the fellowship project, but Brenes-Mora’s friend saw longer-term potential.

"He was like 'whoa, you have more than a logo, you have more than a project, you can actually start something here,'" Brenes-Mora remembers.

And start something he did. The idea quickly evolved into the full-scale conservation project, Nai. (In the indigenous Bribri language of Costa Rica, nai means danta, or tapir.) Under Brenes-Mora's leadership, the organization is bringing together people with a variety of skills to raise awareness and preserve the tapir species. Nai's biologists and veterinarians perform critical, in-the-field research that informs tapir conservation action. The organization's teachers educate children on the tapir species as part of its "Salva-Dantas" program, which prepares youth for a lifetime of helping the tapir. And graphic designers and artists like Mauricio Sanabria, an artist who joined the team as a twentysomething in 2017, create eye-catching signs and other content to help spread the word about Nai—and ultimately the tapir—online and across local communities.

Over the past four years, this seed of a project has grown into a grassroots movement. The team's bright yellow "tapir crossing" stickers—the symbol of support for Nai—are popping up in restaurants, homes, and businesses throughout the country. One delicious example is in Costa Rica's capital city of San José, where Lucía Cole and Mauricio Varela, the founders of Tapir Chocolates, donate a portion of all profits to Nai.

And all the way down in the southwestern-most Osa Peninsula some 200 miles away, two of Nai's biggest supporters, Steven Masis and Deyanira Hernández, plan to guide us through the jungle in search of a tapir.

The founders of Tapir Chocolates donate a portion of their profits to Nai to aid in the conservation of Costa Rica's Baird's tapirs.
The founders of Tapir Chocolates donate a portion of their profits to Nai to aid in the conservation of Costa Rica's Baird's tapirs.
Stephanie Vermillion

Masis and Hernández lead wildlife tours across the tropical Osa Peninsula, including through the country's popular, secluded Corcovado National Park. Both in their early thirties and with backgrounds in biology, Masis and Hernández join Nai and its partners on virtually all research trips through the remote, 160-square-mile park. Of all the places to spot tapirs in Costa Rica, Corcovado's dense, foggy rainforests—accessible only by boat or tiny plane—are the best bet. But even with their exceptional tapir-sighting success rate, these two activists don't take those sightings for granted.

Any encounter with the endangered tapir is rare and special. Due to threats like poaching (its hide is highly valuable on the black market), habitat loss, road kills, and trafficking, populations are plummeting throughout its Central American habitat. At this point, Brenes-Mora estimates only 1500 tapirs remain in Costa Rica, and research suggests that the total population of Baird’s tapirs in the entire region is only around 3000.

The possibility of losing the tapir species is problematic for planet Earth. The tapir holds a unique ecological "superpower" that’s becoming more important by the second: the ability to help combat climate change. They can eat over 200 pounds of fruit, plants, and seeds a day, and in the process, they essentially clear the forest floor, till the ground with their rummaging, and spread the seeds that they eat through transference and droppings. And they've been doing this for millions of years.

 

Despite the challenges, the tapir movement is not all doom and gloom. Earlier that week, I joined Nai for an afternoon installing "tapir crossing" road signs in central Costa Rica's Cerro de la Muerte mountains, and saw several indicators of success throughout the day.

For one, even erecting these street signs is progress. The team used trap-photo data and subsequent tapir and road traffic models to project exactly where traffic accidents occur most frequently, and they have used that data to convince the transportation department and local communities to allow tapir-crossing signs at high-risk sections along the busy Inter-American Highway, which runs right through tapir habitat.

The Nai Conservation team installs tapir crossing road signs in Costa Rica.
The Nai Conservation team installs tapir crossing road signs in Costa Rica.
Stephanie Vermillion

"All of our decisions are based on actual data," Brenes-Mora says. "Based on that data, we start making decisions and lobby to include our ideas into policy.”

Brenes-Mora, a pragmatic biologist who has formed strong working relationships with key government leaders and NGOs, is hesitant to claim the decrease in road kills as a success just yet. A couple of years is not enough time to impact the population of a large mammal, he says (especially one with a 400-day gestation period for a single calf—repopulating the species will take a very long time).

But four years is enough time to create a widespread, engaging movement among locals. From Brenes-Mora's perspective, this unity surrounding the tapir is the ultimate success.

"Without people, it doesn't matter if we have protected areas, it doesn't matter if we're protecting the populations," he says. "Without engaging people, we won't be able to secure the species in the long term."

While Nai is his brainchild and tapirs are his lifeblood, Brenes-Mora doesn't want the future of Nai—or, more importantly, the tapir species—to depend solely on him.

"I'm always asking myself 'what will happen when I die?'" he muses. "I don't want tapirs to be unattended if something happens to me. I don't want to be the tapir guy, I want Nai to be the tapir group. I want all the members of the team to be the tapir people. It's hard to do that, but we're on the right track."

With the future in mind, Brenes-Mora is priming people like Nai research lead and team veterinarian Jorge Rojas, artist Mauricio Sanabria, and dozens of other dedicated team members to help carry the tapir mission forward. They tour and give talks, like at a recent weeklong event they hosted at the University of Costa Rica with the Costa Rica Wildlife Foundation, where Brenes-Mora and Rojas spoke at a symposium for students, professors, and activists about threats to tapirs, their importance to the environment, and how to best help and protect them.

That's why our trip down to Corcovado National Park is a milestone for the movement—the plight of the tapir is generally less known than that of the whale or tiger or rhino. Raising awareness about the tapir is one of its best chances at survival.

 

Alisha and I had originally planned to take the two-day Corcovado trek on our own, but after some consideration (and likely Brenes-Mores's urging, given the rough terrain we'd be facing—i.e. jungle off-roading), Sanabria joined us for a chance to see the animal he's been working so hard to save. For all the work he has done as a researcher and activist and the time he's spent in the field, he has yet to see a tapir in the wild.

Suddenly, our naturalist guide bursts from the forest yelling, "Un tapir! Un tapir!," and Sanabria takes off running. Despite the fact that Masis and Hernández see tapirs more regularly than most, they're leading our 100-yard blitz down the beach with him—smiling their "Christmas morning grins" every step of the way.

Finally, after much huffing and puffing, we've made it. We've caught up with our guides and are now face to face with the remarkable tapir we drove hundreds of miles to see.

Nai Conservation researcher and activist Mauricio Sanabria with a tapir on the beach in Costa Rica's Corcorvado National Park.
Nai Conservation researcher and activist Mauricio Sanabria with a tapir on the beach in Costa Rica's Corcorvado National Park.
Stephanie Vermillion

We're awestruck and on adrenaline highs, but the tapir couldn't be less interested in the five of us. He offers a polite nod between super-sized mouthfuls of vegetation, but he has business to attend to—like strolling along the shoreline, urinating in the ocean, and then passing out in the sun.

Sanabria locks eyes with the now-sleepy tapir, and in a moment of near-solitude with the elusive creature, Sanabria can feel the magnitude of the work he's been doing.

"It's touching to finally see what you're working for," he says. "It's a little sign of hope."

A Baird's tapir on a beach in Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park.
A Baird's tapir on a beach in Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park.
Stephanie Vermillion

Is There An International Standard Governing Scientific Naming Conventions?

iStock/Grafissimo
iStock/Grafissimo

Jelle Zijlstra:

There are lots of different systems of scientific names with different conventions or rules governing them: chemicals, genes, stars, archeological cultures, and so on. But the one I'm familiar with is the naming system for animals.

The modern naming system for animals derives from the works of the 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (Latinized to Carolus Linnaeus). Linnaeus introduced the system of binominal nomenclature, where animals have names composed of two parts, like Homo sapiens. Linnaeus wrote in Latin and most his names were of Latin origin, although a few were derived from Greek, like Rhinoceros for rhinos, or from other languages, like Sus babyrussa for the babirusa (from Malay).

Other people also started using Linnaeus's system, and a system of rules was developed and eventually codified into what is now called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). In this case, therefore, there is indeed an international standard governing naming conventions. However, it does not put very strict requirements on the derivation of names: they are merely required to be in the Latin alphabet.

In practice a lot of well-known scientific names are derived from Greek. This is especially true for genus names: Tyrannosaurus, Macropus (kangaroos), Drosophila (fruit flies), Caenorhabditis (nematode worms), Peromyscus (deermice), and so on. Species names are more likely to be derived from Latin (e.g., T. rex, C. elegans, P. maniculatus, but Drosophila melanogaster is Greek again).

One interesting pattern I've noticed in mammals is that even when Linnaeus named the first genus in a group by a Latin name, usually most later names for related genera use Greek roots instead. For example, Linnaeus gave the name Mus to mice, and that is still the genus name for the house mouse, but most related genera use compounds of the Greek-derived root -mys (from μῦς), which also means "mouse." Similarly, bats for Linnaeus were Vespertilio, but there are many more compounds of the Greek root -nycteris (νυκτερίς); pigs are Sus, but compounds usually use Greek -choerus (χοῖρος) or -hys/-hyus (ὗς); weasels are Mustela but compounds usually use -gale or -galea (γαλέη); horses are Equus but compounds use -hippus (ἵππος).

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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