Pattern fans, here’s today’s $64,000 question: How can we explain zebra stripes? Plausible theories abound dating most famously from a debate between Charles Darwin and fellow 19th-century biologist Alfred Russel Wallace. To debunk your first (likely) guess: It’s not about camouflage. As Darwin pointed out, zebras graze in open savannahs, not amid thick vegetation where their stripes could serve as decent camouflage.
Other theories: Zebra stripes serve as displays of individual fitness (screwy stripes might indicate a less-than-robust potential mate); or as key to zebras’ social interaction (each zebra boasts a print unique to itself, like a body-sized fingerprint). Evidence exists to suggest zebra stripes help regulate the animal’s body temperature or confuse predators.
That last notion has gained traction lately among zoologists, whose research points an accusing zebra-striped finger at two members of the tabanid species, tsetse flies and horseflies. Both qualify as zebra predators of a not-merely-irritating sort: The former causes sleeping sickness in zebras; the latter reduces body fat and milk production in horses and grazing cattle. Tabanids require a blood meal before laying eggs, but get surprisingly finicky as to the animal’s coloring they prefer. In a series of studies between 2010 and 2012, a team of Hungarian and Swedish biologists decided to figure out why.
Forgoing the difficulties of working with actual zebras, the scientists built a testing station on a Hungarian horsefarm using inanimate objects—specifically plastic trays of salad oils (to capture flies as they landed), glue-covered boards and fake zebra models. Some were painted uniformly dark- or light-colored, and some sported stripes of various widths. They put all these objects in a field infested with horseflies and counted how many insects they trapped.
The takeaway? All-white animals repel horseflies best, although this coloring isn’t without collateral drawbacks, including increased risk of skin cancer, visual problems and attack by larger predators. Zebra stripes repel horseflies nearly as well as all-white coloring. The bugs use polarized light to guide them to egg-laying sites—and solid-dark animals reflect polarized light like crazy. Zebra stripes, on the other hand, throw off the exact sort of polarized light that tabanids find repulsive. Zebras have even nailed the optimal stripe-width to repel flies, studies show.
Whatever the final word of modern science on the subject, the facts rob none of the pleasure from African folk tales explaining the zebra’s stripes, including this one from the San tribe of Namibia. An all-white zebra stumbled upon a pool of water guarded by a pushy baboon, who refused to let the zebra drink. The two animals fought in a battle that settled both of their most distinctive features.
Here’s how children’s book How the Zebra Got His Stripes: African Folk Tales by Cari Mostert describes the scene:
With a huge kick, Zebra sent Baboon flying into the rocks of a nearby hill. Baboon landed so hard on the rough rocks that he was left with big, red, bald patches, where he had landed on his rump and they are still on his descendants to this day. Meanwhile Zebra, unbalanced by the force of his kick, had staggered into Baboon’s fire, scorching his beautiful white hide, leaving him full of stripes from head to rump. … From that day on, Zebra’s descendants, wondrously striped in black and white, have lived mainly in the great grassy plains of Africa. Baboon still barks fiercely at all, living high up among the rocks, holding his tail stiffly up to ease the stinging of his tender bald patches.
- For a clever look into the meaning of color and the emotional and social impact color has on our lives, check out Jude Stewart’s Roy G. Biv: An Exceedingly Surprising Bundle About Color.
- Want even more colorful insight from Jude Stewart? Check out Color Palettes & Patterns. In this download, you’ll discover the history of color, how certain colors have gained and lost favor over the years, and explore the backgrounds of different prints and patterns.
- Just as the zebra’s stripes set it apart, a logo is typography (logotype) and/or an icon that sets us apart from everyone else. Learn how to create a logo, redesign/update your existing logo or simply refresh your logo design skills in Designing an Attention Grabbing Logo with E. Genevieve Williams.