Quite why zebras have stripes is a question that has long fascinated scientists. Theories abound including the obvious one that they provide the animal some form of camouflage against their natural predators. However, the fly in this particular ointment is that it isn’t particularly effective. Zebras are the prey of choice of lions and other large predators and they seem to get through their fair share of the ungulates, camouflage or no.
It was in the 1930s that the idea of stripes having something to do with controlling the number of flies that land on and bite zebras gained some traction. After all, they live in parts of the world where flies carry deadly disease and where the constant draining of blood can affect the animals’ general well-being. A big step forward was made in 2014 when Tim Caro of the University of California and his colleagues published the results of their research in the journal, Nature Communications in a paper entitled The function of zebra stripes. I will shut my eyes to the fact it was published on April 1st.
They looked at various species of zebras, horses and asses, and sub-species, trying to establish whether the ecology of the area in which they lived had any influence on their propensity to have stripes. The scientists found that where there was a preponderance of inimical insects, particularly the tsetse flies, the equids were more likely to have stripes. Moreover, those areas of the body most vulnerable to attack generally had a greater density of stripes.
These findings lent some credence to the theory that the zebra’s stripes may have evolved to ward off biting flies. But how? After all, an insect wouldn’t be able to distinguish between a striped animal and a plain one until it was close by. Some further field research was needed to put some flesh on these theoretical bones.
The indefatigable Tim Caro and his team took up the challenge by examining the behaviour of tabanids, horse flies to you and me, on striped zebras and plain horses on a farm in Britain. Their results, published in the journal, Plos One, on February 20, 2019 in an article entitled Benefits of zebra stripes: Behaviour of tabanid flies around zebras and horses, revealed that fewer flies landed on the zebras than the horses although there was no noticeable difference in the number buzzing around them. Interestingly, flies seemed to be surprised to encounter stripes, they were British, after all, and either veered off or were so discombobulated that they were unable to land on the animal’s skin.
Their research was followed up by a series of ingenious experiments conducted by a team of Japanese scientists, led by Tomoki Kojima. In a paper intriguingly entitled Cows painted with zebra-like striping can avoid biting fly attack, published in Plos One on October 3, 2019, they revealed that they took six pregnant Japanese black cows, painting on two of them white stripes some 4 to 5 centimetres wide. Two they painted black and the other two were left as nature intended them.
The process was repeated twice more so that each cow spent three days striped, painted black or unpainted. The scientists also took high-resolution photographs of the cows at different times of the day, the more easily to count the number of insects that had landed on them. They were also interested to see whether the animals exhibited any behavioural traits suggestive of being bothered by insects, such as flicking their tails or stamping their feet.
When the results were analysed, the scientists found that only 55 flies visited the cows with white stripes, compared with 111 on the black-painted cows and 128 on the plain ones. Behaviours designed to repel flies were deployed less frequently by the white-striped cows than the others, 40 times every thirty minutes compared with 53 and 54 respectively.
The stripes were not completely fool proof as the ersatz zebras were bitten, perhaps because the flies use other senses such as smell to locate their victims, but the implication is that stripes do have some deterrent effect on flies. Clearly, more research is needed and an efficient way of striping cattle has to be found. It took the scientists around five minutes to paint the stripes on each cow, so it may be some time before we see farmers deploy this technique to give their animals a modicum of respite when flies are at their most active.
But I will tell you one thing. Since I bought a zebra onesie, there have been no flies on me!