News

Zebra stripes may be mainly defense against flies

Fur pattern’s function not for camouflage or cooling, researchers find

By
12:11pm, April 1, 2014

POWER STRIPES  An unusual head-to-head test of ideas about the function of zebra stripes finds little support for some cherished old notions and only one winner: defense against biting flies.

Protection from flies best explains the function of zebra stripes, says a new analysis.

A head-to-head test of five explanations that researchers have proposed for zebras’ distinctive patterning finds no support for some long-discussed ideas, says Tim Caro of the University of California, Davis. Looking at the ranges and ecology of various zebras and other subspecies of the genus Equus undermines, for example, the notions that stripes camouflage animals in woodlands or dazzle big predators into misjudging prey movements and flubbing an attack.

The best explanation for the function of the iconic stripes turns out to be discouraging bloodthirsty tabanid horse flies and tsetse flies, Caro and his colleagues report April 1 in Nature Communications. Other experiments have found that flies prefer landing on solid colors to contrasting stripes.

This article is available only to subscribing members. Join SSP today or Log in.

More Evolution articles