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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.

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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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16 Playful Facts About Otters
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These adorable aquatic mammals are clever, chatty, and oddly aromatic.

1. THERE ARE 13 SPECIES OF OTTERS, AND JUST ABOUT ALL OF THEM ARE DECREASING.

Only one otter species seems to be thriving, and that's the North American River Otter. The other 12 otter species were recently identified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as having decreasing populations, and five otter species are already on the endangered list. Among the endangered are the sea otters along the California coast, which are threatened by "environmental pollutants and disease agents." Others, like the marine otters of South America, have had their numbers reduced because of poaching, as well as environmental concerns.

2. ZOROASTRIANS THOUGHT THE OTTERS TO BE NEARLY SACRED CREATURES.

This ancient monotheistic religion considered otters to be the dogs of the river or sea and had strict rules forbidding the killing of otters. It was thought that otters helped keep water purified by eating already dead creatures that might contaminate the water source if they were allowed rot. They would also hold ceremonies for otters found dead in the wild.

3. OTTERS HAVE VERY DISTINCTIVE POOP, AND THAT SCAT HAS ITS OWN NAME.

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Otters use their dung—known as spraint—to mark territory and communicate with other otters. The mammals like to keep things organized within their communities and will designate certain areas to be used as latrines. Spraint scents can vary, but often are (relatively) pleasant—one expert described them as not "dissimilar to jasmine tea." Spraint composition is unique to each otter, and the creatures can identify each other by the smells. Scientists suspect otters may even be able to determine the sex, age, and reproductive status of the spraint dropper just from a quick whiff. And since otters have superb metabolisms and must eat up to 15 percent of their body weight each day, there's a lot of spraint to go around.

4. OTTER MOMS ARE TOTALLY GAME FOR ADOPTION.

In 2001, a female otter at the Monterey Bay Aquarium gave birth to a stillborn pup on the same day a stranded pup was discovered in the wild nearby. The aquarium staff had previously tried raising pups themselves but found that hand-raised otters became too attached to humans to be released back into the wild. So instead, they dropped the pup in with the female otter, and she immediately went into mom mode. The aquarium has since devised a system of hand-rearing pups for the first 6-8 weeks—mostly for bottle feeding purposes—before handing the pups off to female otters for raising. At six months, the pups are released back into the wild with generally strong results.

5. THEY HAVE THE THICKEST FUR OF ANY MAMMAL IN THE ANIMAL KINGDOM.

Otters can have up to one million hairs per square inch. There are two layers of fur—an undercoat and then longer hairs that we can see. The layers manage to trap air next to the otter's skin, which keeps the otters dry and warm and also helps with buoyancy. Otter pups have so much air trapped in there, they actually can’t dive under water, even if they want to.

6. AN OTTER IS SOMETIMES ONLY AS GOOD AS HIS TOOLS.

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Otters love to eat shelled animals, like clams, but they aren't equipped with the strength to open their food without some help. Therefore, they are big on tools and will often use rocks to help crack into dinner. While they hunt for food underwater, they’ll often store a rock in the skin under their arms for later use.

7. OTTERS ARE POPULAR IN NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURE, BUT FOR VARYING REASONS.

Some tribes consider the otter to be a lucky animal and a symbol of "loyalty and honesty." But some, particularly in present-day Canada and Alaska, viewed the river otter "with awe and dread" and associated the creatures with the undead and drowning. They forbid eating the creatures and were offended when colonial Europeans began hunting the river otters and selling their furs.

8. GIANT OTTERS ARE SUPER CHATTY.

In 2014, a study of giant otters found that the river-dwellers have 22 distinct noises they make for different situations. On top of that, pups have 11 of their own calls that they intersperse with "infant babbling." Among the most notable calls: a "hum graduation" used to tell otters to change directions and a "Hah!" shout when a threat is nearby.

9. OTTERS AND HUMANS CAN COLLABORATE.

In Bangladesh, otters help fisherman maximize their haul. For centuries, fisherman have been training otters to act as herders and chase large schools of fish into the nets.

10. DRONES MAY HELP SCIENTISTS BETTER STUDY OTTERS IN THE WILD.

Keeping an eye on otters in the wild is a tricky task. In the past, observers have usually set up telescopes on shore to try and monitor otters at sea while on land. Otters won't act naturally with humans nearby, and using a telescope on a boat can get tricky in the rollicking ocean. But now, scientists are using unmanned drones with cameras to get an aerial look at otters in their element, making it easier to monitor the creatures as they dive for food and go about their day.

11. SEE A GROUP OF OTTERS? THAT'S A ROMP. OR A BEVY.

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Or a family or a raft. Otter groups go by a few different monikers, all of which are fairly unique to that crew. Generally, a group of otters on land will go by a romp, while a group hanging in the water is called a raft.

12. OTTERS ARE BIG ON PLAY TIME, AND MAKING SLIDES IS AMONG THEIR FAVORITE GAMES.

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Otter families are usually limited to pups and their mothers, and that duo will spend most of their time either feeding or sleeping. In the downtime, though, otters love to play and will often build themselves slides along the banks of rivers.

13. CALIFORNIA SEA OTTERS DIVIDE THEMSELVES IN DIET GUILDS.

Once thought to be gone from the area completely, southern sea otters—known as California sea otters—have been making a comeback in recent years. But with their numbers hovering around just a few thousand, researchers have kept a close eye on the population and their studies have revealed an interesting social structure. The otters, which need to consume 25 percent to 35 percent of their body weight every day in order to maintain their blubber stores and keep themselves warm in the cool waters, are divided into three "dietary guilds": Deep-diving otters that dine on abalone, urchins, and Dungeness crab; medium divers who subsist on clams, worms, and smaller shellfish; and those that stay in shallower waters, feeding on black snails.

14. THE FIRST EUROPEAN TO SET FOOT IN ALASKA WAS ALSO THE FIRST TO DESCRIBE SEA OTTERS.

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Georg Wilhelm Steller was the first to scientifically describe numerous new animals on the 1741 explorative voyage from Russia. Aboard the St. Peter, Steller and other 18th-century explorers crash-landed on mainland Alaska after getting separated from its sister ship. Steller was the first European to set foot on the icy land. Over the course of a rough Alaskan winter, he meticulously documented many species, and while some have since gone extinct (like a sea-cow he described that was hunted into extinction), the adorable otter was among his initial discoveries.

15. BABY OTTERS ARE BUOYANT, BUT THEY CAN'T SWIM ON THEIR OWN.

A mother will often wrap the babies in kelp to keep them in one place while she hunts. Or, she might rely on human resources and otter ingenuity to find a makeshift “playpen” for her pup.

16. THEIR BEHAVIOR ISN'T ALWAYS ADORABLE.

Like many animals, otters sometimes behave in ways that aren't exactly within the bounds of what humans would consider morally acceptable. Even if you find them otherwise adorable, otters' mating habits will no doubt make your stomach turn.

Male otters' mating techniques are violent. They bite their female partner's face during copulation to keep her from slipping away, leaving her with substantial facial wounds. It's not uncommon for female otters to die as a result of these aggressive encounters, either through drowning or from their wounds becoming infected. Male otters have also been known to violently copulate with other species—most notably, baby seals [PDF]. The behavior doesn't stop when the seals die from the trauma. Otters have been known to guard and have sex with the bodies of their victims for up to seven days after they've died.

Scientists hypothesize that these seemingly counterproductive mating habits might be the result of a population imbalance. In California's Monterey Bay, where scientists observed otters trying to copulate with the week-old bodies of dead baby seals, there are far more male otters than females. Facing a lack of female partners, male otters may be engaging in what researchers call "misdirected sexual activity." The area in the bay where the scientists observed the most otter-on-seal mating sessions was also where there was a high population of transient male otters, ones that, unlike more dominant males, don't have an established territory filled with potential mates. In the absence of females of their own kind, then, they turned their typical sexual responses toward the seals. Nature, unfortunately, isn't always pretty.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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