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 Poison-Detecting Secret Weapon of the Middle Ages: Unicorn Horn

A woodcut of a unicorn from 1551
A woodcut of a unicorn from 1551

In the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, Europeans knew that unicorns were real. After all, their horns were the treasured possessions of royalty, nobility, and even clergy. Charles VI of France had one, as did Lorenzo de Medici, and Danish rulers sat on a throne carved out of them. Queen Elizabeth I had a fully intact horn she used as a scepter; it was valued at 10,000 pounds—roughly the cost of a castle in her day. In fact, unicorn horns were considered so valuable the Elizabethan dramatist John Dekker wrote that one was "worth a city."

But unicorns horns weren't prized just for their beauty or rarity, or as tokens of extreme wealth. They were believed to be powerful defense against disease—and poison.

Fierce But Pure

Oil painting of a woman and unicorn by a follower of Timoteo Viti
Chastity, oil painting by a follower of Timoteo Viti

For an animal that never existed, the unicorn got around. The ancient myths of India and China mention unicorn-like animals, as did the tales Greek travelers brought back from India and other far-flung lands. The earliest Greek description is from the historian Ctesias, who wrote around 400 BCE of a large, agile animal with a white body, dark red head, and a long horn on its forehead. About a hundred years later, scholars translating the Old Testament interpreted a horned animal known in Hebrew as re'em as a unicorn (though modern translators prefer the term auroch, an extinct species of cattle). Writing in the first century CE, Pliny the Elder described the unicorn is "the fiercest animal, and it is said that it is impossible to capture one alive. It has the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single black horn three feet long in the middle of its forehead.”

From the beginning, accounts of the unicorn emphasized their healing and purifying properties. Ctesias wrote, "Those who drink out of these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, to convulsions or to the holy disease [epilepsy]. Indeed, they are immune even to poisons if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from these beakers." Similar accounts appeared for centuries: Around the 3rd century CE, the Greek intellectual Philostratus wrote that "the Indians make drinking-cups from this horn, which have such virtue that the man who drinks from one will for one whole day neither fall ill, nor feel pain if wounded, nor be burned by passing through fire, nor even be affected by poisons which he could not swallow at any other time without harm."

By the 12th century, a German nun known for her saintly visions, Hildegard of Bingen, recommended a paste of powdered unicorn liver and egg yolk as a cure for leprosy, although she conveniently noted that it could fail if the "leper in question happens to be one whom death is determined to have or else one whom God does not wish to be cured." Unicorn hide was also recommended in boots and belts, partly as prevention for that greatest scourge of the Middle Ages: plague.

Belief in the healing powers of the unicorn focused especially on its mysterious, twisting horn. The substance, often called alicorn, was associated with great purity as well as healing, sometimes with religious overtones (the purity of the white animal was thought to be connected to Jesus Christ, and the horn to his cross). Hunters in search of a unicorn were supposed to lure the animal with a female virgin, capturing the animal once it fell asleep in her lap.

A Common Deception

Narwhal tusk
A narwhal tusk

Of course, no such hunters were ever successful. Objects portrayed as being made from unicorn sometimes came from rhinoceroses or mammoth fossils but most often in Europe from narwhals, which were hunted by the Vikings in the North Atlantic. The Vikings harvested the narwhals’ spiraling tusks and sold them on to traders who either didn't know, or didn't care, about their true origins in the sea.

Once obtained, alicorn could be taken in many forms. Powdered, it was applied to dog bites and other wounds or consumed as treatment for plague, gout, and other diseases. The influential German physician Johann Schröder recommended it for childhood epilepsy. And although other physicians numbered among the earliest skeptics, apothecaries used unicorns widely in their potions. Eau de licorn—water purified by the introduction of unicorn’s horn or by being poured through a hollowed-out segment of horn—was also widely sold and reputed to have health benefits.

While the extraordinary cost of the intact horns made them showpieces for the rich, powdered unicorn horn was an affordable remedy for the average citizen. This was largely because other substances could be easily substituted: horse hoofs, fossils, and other types of horn. In fact, the widespread problem of fraud led to frequent tests of the authenticity of the horn itself, including presenting it to spiders and scorpions and observing to see if they avoided it or died. If they did, the item was thought to be genuine horn.

Poison-Proof

A page from a 17th-century French medical text discussing unicorns
A page from a 17th-century French medical text discussing unicorns

Poisoning was particularly feared during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance by the back-stabbing royalty and nobility keen to maintain their positions, not to mention their lives. Such an insidious crime required extraordinary measures: While European royalty kept other poison-detectors, including rubies, bezoar stones, and griffin claws, unicorn horn was a favored material for protection as well.

Whole unicorn horns were deployed on dining tables as poison detectors, while fragments of horn, called touches by the French, could be touched or dipped to plates of food to detect the presence of toxins. They could also be hung on chains or mounts of precious metal (actually less valuable materials, pound for pound, than the horn itself). French royalty had utensils made with alicorn, while other members of the European nobility had the horn inset into jewelry. The horn was expected to provide an alert to the presence of poison by changing color, sweating beads of moisture, or actually steaming. Alicorn might also be dipped into water or run over the actual linens and wall hangings in a banquet hall. Goblets fashioned from unicorn horn were also made across the continent; some believed these would shatter upon contact with a contaminated beverage.

While some medical writers, such as the famed French surgeon Ambroise Paré, were skeptical of the powers of the unicorn horn, many others believed in its merits. The Italian scholar and naturalist Andrea Bacci wrote a defense of the horn's use in 1573, telling the story of a man who consumed a poisoned cherry but was saved thanks to unicorn horn dissolved in wine. He also described an experiment in which two pigeons were fed arsenic, but the one who was given some scrapings of unicorn horn recovered and lived. The other died two hours after being fed the toxin [PDF].

But by the 17th century, the myth of the unicorn had begun to tarnish. European travelers to the Arctic brought back tales of the living narwhal, and further missions to other continents disproved the existence of unicorns by process of elimination, since no such animal was ever sighted. In July 1661, the men of the newly formed Royal Society put unicorn horn to the test: They placed a spider in a circle of powdered unicorn’s horn to see what would happen. From from being repelled by the horn, as writers had long claimed, the spider immediately scurried across the powder to escape. The men repeated the experiment several times, each with the same results. Their trial helped sound the death knell for credulous belief in the magical properties of unicorn horn.

The loss of value resulted in the disappearance or destruction of many precious specimens. Items once said to be made from unicorn horn are still in some museum collections, and very occasionally turn up for sale—still bearing their historical value, though no longer imbued with the mysterious properties that once made them worth a city or a castle.

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