“Why do zebras have stripes?” is more than just the lead-in to a corny punchline – it’s a question that’s perplexed us, well, probably since the first human ever laid eyes on one of these fascinating cousins to the horse (and did you know that each zebra’s stripe pattern is as unique as a fingerprint?).
Even zoologists have long been stymied. And while we don’t have a definitive answer quite yet, we do have a very probable cause for these black-and-white striations, coming from new study by researchers at UCLA.
The research team wanted to know if environmental factors were behind the stripe styles of African plains zebras. Convinced the stripes must exist for reasons beyond predation (after all, other animals have predators but do not have stripes), the main question remained: Why would zebras – and only zebras – evolve to have them?
The team found that zebras who lived closer to the equator – where it’s much hotter – had more defined stripes than zebras who lived in cooler regions. These findings correlate with the theory that the stripes are meant for temperature regulation, and keep zebras cool as they spend the day grazing in the blazing sun (zebras digest so inefficiently, they need to forage longer than most other animals).
But as with most theories, it’s not quite that simple; thermoregulation hypothesis still needs more research before we can take it as fact. What’s more, many scientists think the stripes serve other purposes, too, like fending off disease-carrying flies.
So while our definitive answer remains elusive, we’re closer than ever to solving this mystery. And next time someone asks you why zebras have stripes, you can give a damned educated answer.