There’s always the argument of whether a zebra is black with white stripes, or white with black stripes. But have you ever wondered why they are striped in the first place? Well, scientists have the most probable answer yet.
To avoid getting bitten.
That’s right. A research team – from the University of California in the US – says that the stripes on zebras have been developed over time to repel insects like tsetse flies. The monochrome markings form striped surfaces on a zebra’s body, and are avoided by these insects who may otherwise bite them.
The question of the stripes had always been a mystery for biologists, and had remained unanswered for centuries. There were some explanations on the subject that varied, and were debated by great minds like Charles Darwin.
The stripes were assumed to be a form of camouflage to mask the zebra against predators and confuse them, leading to the animal’s escape. It was also thought to help in managing heat, especially since zebras live in the open plains. Besides these assumptions, the stripes were thought to have a social aspect to them, whereby zebras felt safe with their kind.
To begin with the study, researchers mapped the areas where there were zebra populations, and recorded the details of the stripes of each zebra species. The details were categorized based on what part of the body the stripes were on.
Then they compared the zebra population growth with the type of environment it lived in, the predators, the temperature, and the parasitic activity by flies. They gradually narrowed down to a single factor that linked to the zebras – the stripes could possibly be a way to avoid bloodsucking insects.
In addition to this result, the researchers also noticed that those parts of a zebra’s body that were more susceptible to biting flies had more stripes.
The study also focused on the breeding conditions of the flies, and found that the striping that occurred in zebras was directly associated with the time of reproduction of these insects. The ‘striping time’ was a period in which the conditions were highly suitable for insects like tsetse flies to reproduce.
The hair of a zebra was also equally important in this study. Since the length of body hair was shorter than the length of the proboscis, or the mouthpart of the flies, zebras were particularly threatened. This could be a possible reason for the stark contrasting pattern in their body.
So what could this information help with? Human clothing, of course! This would lead researchers to believe that wearing striped clothing could aid in the protection of one’s body from insect bites.
So, to reduce the risk of being bitten, one would simply have to wear a striped shirt, right?
That’s not all. Scientists say that the effectiveness of this protection depended on the type of striped surface as well as the material used. The first aspect of buying striped clothing would be to make sure that the stripes are thin, according to them.
However, striped surfaces are known to reflect different kinds of visible light, but also do the same to polarized light that is visible only to flies. The extent of polarized light depends on the surface and how it reflects the light. This was an important factor when it came to the zebra’s coat, with its hair and stripes.
Want to avoid that mosquito bite? Get some stripes on!