How the zebra got its stripes: A problem with too many solutions

Brenda Larison, Ryan J. Harrigan, Henri A. Thomassen, Daniel Ian Rubenstein, Alec M. Chan-Golston, Elizabeth Li, Thomas B. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


The adaptive significance of zebra stripes has thus far eluded understanding. Many explanations have been suggested, including social cohesion, thermoregulation, predation evasion and avoidance of biting flies. Identifying the associations between phenotypic and environmental factors is essential for testing these hypotheses and substantiating existing experimental evidence. Plains zebra striping pattern varies regionally, from heavy black and white striping over the entire body in some areas to reduced stripe coverage with thinner and lighter stripes in others. We examined how well 29 environmental variables predict the variation in stripe characteristics of plains zebra across their range in Africa. In contrast to recent findings, we found no evidence that striping may have evolved to escape predators or avoid biting flies. Instead, we found that temperature successfully predicts a substantial amount of the stripe pattern variation observed in plains zebra. As this association between striping and temperature may be indicative of multiple biological processes, we suggest that the selective agents driving zebra striping are probably multifarious and complex.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number140452
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Ecological predictions
  • Patterning
  • Random forest
  • Species distribution modelling
  • Stripes
  • Zebra


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