Burchell's zebra herd resting their heads on the backs of other members of the herd in a bonding ritual.

Why Zebras Have Stripes and 23 Other Cool Zebra Facts

Zebras, with their iconic black and white stripes, are among the most visually captivating creatures on the planet. Although they have shared ancient ancestry, zebras are not just stripey horses. These unique animals are fascinating, but sadly poaching, habitat loss, and climate change are putting them at risk of extinction. 

1. The Secret Behind Zebra Stripes

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For over a century, scientists and naturalists have pondered why zebras have stripes. Theories range from camouflage to communication to temperature control. Recent studies, however, suggest a more practical use: keeping biting flies at bay. Compared to horses kept in the same location and condition, zebras suffered far fewer fly bites, suggesting the stripes keep biting pests at bay. 

The stripes are also believed to help zebras manage the African heat. The difference in temperature between the black and white stripes facilitates the creation of small, cooling air currents.

Interestingly, while we might think zebras stand out, their stripes actually help them blend into the grassy plains, especially from the colorblind eyes of their predators. A moving herd becomes a confusing mass to predators, like lions, that can’t see color.

2. There Are Three Species

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Africa is home to three distinct species of zebras: the Grévy's zebra, plains zebra, and mountain zebra. Each species has unique characteristics and habitats. The Grévy's zebra, named after a French president who received one as a gift, is the largest and lives in Ethiopia and Kenya. The plains zebra roams from South Sudan to South Africa, and the mountain zebra, as its name suggests, is found in high-altitude areas in South Africa, Namibia, and Angola.

3. Each Species Has Different Stripe Patterns

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Each of the three zebra species has a different stripe pattern. Grévy's zebras sport narrow stripes all over, plains zebras have striping that goes all the way around their bodies, with striped meeting in the middle of their bellies, and mountain zebras have closely spaced stripes that don't cover their bellies.

4. Mountain Climbing Zebras

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Zebras are surprisingly agile climbers. Mountain zebras thrive in rugged, high-altitude terrains thanks to their specialized hooves. They're not the only ones who venture into different habitats, though. Plains zebras also travel through different terrains, including high mountains and vast plains, demonstrating their adaptability.

5. They’re Social Animals

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Zebras are inherently social animals. Plains zebras form close-knit family groups, or harems, while mountain zebras live in large breeding herds or bachelor groups. Grévy's zebras have a more fluid social structure, with the mother-offspring bond being the most consistent. Despite the differences in social dynamics, all zebra species exhibit complex social behaviors that ensure their survival and continuity.

6. Zebras Are Always On Alert

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Zebras are always on high alert, keeping an eye out for predators such as lions, hyenas, leopards, and cheetahs. The plains zebra has developed a unique high-pitched call to warn the herd of danger. During the nighttime, they take turns standing guard to ensure the safety of the group. In the mountain zebra herds, the lead male signals warnings with snorts, giving the herd a chance to flee. Grévy's zebras, though less gregarious, band together against threats.

7. Multiple Defense Tactics

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Zebras are not defenseless; they have several strategies for protection. They can kick, bite, and push to defend themselves and their territory, especially against predators or rival stallions. If one zebra is attacked, its fellows will rally to its defense, often forming a protective circle. However, their most effective strategy is to flee, reaching speeds between 40 and 55 miles per hour to escape predators.

8. Zebra Hybrids

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For centuries, humans have been fascinated with breeding zebras with other equines, creating “zebroids.” These hybrids, including zorses (zebra and horse) and zedonks (zebra and donkey), aim to combine zebras' resilience and disease resistance with the more domesticated traits of horses and donkeys. 

Despite these efforts, zebras remain largely undomesticated. Interestingly, all zebroid offspring are sterile due to the differing chromosome numbers among zebras, horses, and donkeys.

9. Fruit Stripe Gum’s Mascot

Fruit Stripe Gum packaging with Yipes the Zebra.
Photo Credit: Ferrara Candy Shop.

The Fruit Stripe Gum zebra, known as “Yipes,” is a beloved mascot. Introduced in 1988, Yipes became a collectible figure among toy enthusiasts. Yipes temporary tattoos came in each pack of gum, which people joked lasted longer than the flavor of the gum.

Fans of the iconic brand were disappointed when Fruit Stripe Gum was discontinued in January 2024, after nearly a half-century of stripey chewing.

10. All Zebras Are Endangered

Zebra and Mount Kilimanjaro in Amboseli National Park.
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All zebra species face extinction. The Grévy's zebra is critically endangered, with less than 2,000 individuals left. Both the mountain and plains zebras are also at risk, with populations declining due to hunting, habitat destruction, extreme weather, inbreeding, and competition with livestock for resources.

11. Unique Stripe Patterns

Zebra stretching.
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The stripe patterns of zebras are as unique as human fingerprints. No two zebras have identical stripe patterns. These unique patterns may also play a social role, helping zebras recognize one another.

12. Zebras Are Black With White Stripes

Close up of Zebra face.
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Contrary to popular belief, zebras are black with white stripes, not vice versa. Their skin is black, and the black hair is black because it carries pigment. The white hair is white because it lacks pigment. Therefore, the base color of the zebra is black, hence, they are black with white stripes.

13. They Have Complex Vocalizations and Communications

Zebra that seems to be laughing.
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Zebras use a variety of sounds and body signals to talk to each other. Whether it's whinnying, braying, or even moving their ears, these gestures help share information about danger, who's in charge, and other important social messages.

14. Zebras Aren’t Picky Grazers

zebras graze in the wild.
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As herbivores, zebras have a simple diet consisting mainly of grasses. Their digestive systems are specially equipped to handle tough plant material, allowing them to play a key role in their ecosystems by managing the growth of vegetation and maintaining ecological balance.

15. Zebras Migrate to Follow the Rains

Zebras and approaching storm in Lake Manyara National Park - Tanzania, Eastern Africa.
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Zebras take part in large-scale migrations, much like wildebeest, moving across Tanzania in search of new grasslands and water sources following the seasonal rains. Their adaptability allows them to survive in a variety of environments, from savannas to open plains.

16. They’re Fast

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When faced with predators, zebras rely on their speed and agility to escape as a first line of defense. Capable of running at speeds up to 40 miles per hour, they can outpace many threats. Plus, they’re able to maintain this rapid pace for extended periods.

17. A Group of Zebras Is a Dazzle

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A group or herd of zebras is called a dazzle, a term that highlights the mesmerizing effect of watching these striped animals move together, especially when fleeing from predators. These herds are also known as a zeal of zebras.

18. Zebras Have Exceptional Eyesight

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Zebras have remarkably good eyesight. With eyes positioned on the sides of their heads, they have a broad field of vision, allowing them to spot predators easily, even in low light. Interestingly, zebras can also see in color.

19. A Shared Ancestry With Horses

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Zebras, horses, and donkeys all trace their lineage back to a common ancestor, the Eohippus or “dawn horse,” which roamed the Earth around 55 to 58 million years ago. This tiny ancestor, standing only 1-2 feet tall, evolved into several distinct species, including the zebra and the modern horse and donkey.

20. Maternal Bonding Time

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New zebra mothers take the safety and recognition of their newborns seriously. Following birth, a mother will seclude her foal from the herd for a couple of days. This precious time allows the newborn to learn and identify its mother's unique scent, voice, and look, cementing their bond.

21. Baby Zebras Are Incredible

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Zebra foals are born ready to take on the world. Just ten minutes after birth, they're standing on their own, and walking within 30 minutes. These remarkable little creatures are able to run within an hour of birth. This rapid development is crucial for their survival in the wild, as they need to be able to run with the herd to avoid danger.

22. They Will Stand and Defend the Herd

Herd of zebras stand on alert as lioness approaches.
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In the face of predators, zebras form a semi-circle to confront their attackers, ready to bite, nip, or deliver a powerful kick. If one of their own is hurt, they circle around them, facing outward toward the threat, offering protection and deterrence against further attacks.

23. Zebras Have a Powerful Kick

Wild, mad zebra, kicking, South Africa.
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The zebra's kick is not just for show—it packs a lethal force. With the capability to exert nearly 3,000 pounds of force, a zebra's kick can be fatal to predators, including fully grown lions. While they flee when they can, and perform a threatening defensive display to ward off attackers, if forced, they will lash out with hooves and teeth to defend themselves and one another. 

24. A Zebra World Record

Chair that looks like a throne with zebra stripes.
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The fascination with zebras extends beyond their natural habitat. Wendy Jarnet holds the Guinness World Record for the largest collection of zebra-related items, amassing 508 pieces ranging from plush toys to apparel and accessories. Her record was set in 2014, so she has most likely found even more fun zebra items to add to her collection over the last 10 years. 

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Meerkat peering over a branch.
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Bat-eared fox cubs (Otocyon megalotis).
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