Zebra stripes do not provide camouflage against predators as long believed, suggested a new study published last week in the science journal PLOS ONE
Researchers from the University of Calgary and University of California, Davis determined that a zebra's stripes offer no more protection from lions — its main predator — against different backgrounds, according to a study statement from UC Davis
"The most longstanding hypothesis for zebra striping is crypsis, or camouflaging, but until now the question has always been framed through human eyes," Amanda Melin, the study's lead author from the University of Calgary, said in the release.
"We, instead, carried out a series of calculations through which we were able to estimate the distances at which lions and spotted hyenas, as well as zebras, can see zebra stripes under daylight, twilight, or during a moonless night," she continued.
The study revealed that stripes cannot be viewed as an effective camouflage agent against the environment because a predator has likely already heard or smelled a zebra by the time it sees the stripes.
"The results from this new study provide no support at all for the idea that the zebra's stripes provide some type of anti-predator camouflaging effect," study coauthor from the University of California, Tim Caro, said.
The PLOS ONE research found that a zebra's stripes would probably be less effective in wooded areas, where the markings are supposed to be most beneficial, because the animal might be "even noisier in woodland" than open areas because of branches and sticks.
"Only a stationary, silent nearby zebra in a woodland habitat would benefit from crypsis due to stripes, a distance at which scent could be a cue to predators," researchers wrote in the discussion section of the study.
"In short, our data fail to support the hypothesis that stripes confer a form of crypsis against predators under a variety of conditions. More generally, the likelihood that stripes reduce predation, by lions at least, is improbable given that zebras are a preferred prey of lions in most parts of Africa."
Caro and the other researchers have shown in previous studies that a zebra's stripes give the animal some evolutionary advantage by discouraging biting flies, a natural pest of the species.
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