Zebra stripes don't keep the animals cool or camouflaged, according to a new study by University of California, Davis biologists. The dramatic pattern isn't meant to attract mates or confuse predators, either. Instead, the scientists believe that these stripes keep smaller creatures -- tsetse flies and other winged biters -- at bay.
The markings of different zebra subspecies and their cousins, like the African wild ass, vary in vividity and size. By mapping the habitats of the different zebra types, the scientists realized the animals with the most stripes live in areas where biting flies are most numerous. "Again and again, there was greater striping on areas of the body in those parts of the world where there was more annoyance from biting flies," says Tim Caro, a professor of wildlife biology at UC Davis. The stripes, the researchers conclude, act as a sort of color-coded pest repellent.
But not all scientists are convinced the matter is settled. Brenda Larison, a zebra expert at University of California, Los Angeles, tells National Geographic that this study has the "best supported hypothesis to date," but direct evidence is lacking. The UC Davis scientists, too, have found themselves faced with another question -- why don't biting flies like stripes?