The mystery of how the zebra got its stripes might have been solved: researchers say the pattern appears to confuse flies, discouraging them from touching down for a quick bite.
A team of researchers conducted a series of interesting experiments to try to figure out why zebras have stripes all over their bodies. For reasons of clarity, the part of the horses dressed up in a "striped coat" and treated the secret of zebras to match odors.
Behavioural ecologist Tim Caro of the University of California-Davis, who is the lead author of the research published in the journal PLOS ONE, said that only the fly attack hypothesis stands up to scrutiny. Therefore, it is unsurprising that zebras utilise both behavioural defences and morphological striping to avoid horse flies.
Horse flies are a widespread problem for domestic animals so mitigating techniques, such as the development of anti-fly wear created to resemble zebra stripes, may, from this research, be an interesting outcome for animal health and wellbeing.
Researchers made their discovery by spending more than 16 hours standing in fields and noting how horseflies interacted with nine horses and three zebras - including one somewhat bemusingly called Spot.
When solid-colored horses were dressed in the "zebra coats" the flies made far fewer landings on the patterned areas, but still landed on the uncovered, non-striped head.
The findings also show that zebras and horses respond very differently to the presence of flies.
Theories about their function have included camouflage, a means of confusing predators, a method of signalling other zebras, and a system of heat control.
The bugs were still attracted to the zebras, and still pursued them from a distance, but couldn't nail the landing when they got close. The zebra swished tails nearly continuously to ward off flies, while horses primarily twitch and occasionally swish tails to ward off flies. Horses, on the other hand, primarily twitch and occasionally swish to ward off flies.
The objective of zebra stripes has always been a mystery. However, video analyses revealed differences in approach speed, with horse flies failing to slow down on approach to zebras, which is essential for a successful landing.
The evolution of the zebra's two-tone coat has intrigued scientists for over 150 years.