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Discovering the striped world of zebras: Facts about their adaptations, behaviour and ecology

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

This blog about zebras was written by Bushwise Professional Field Guide student Thato Kgosi. As part of their training, each student submits a researched blog based on a topic of their choice. Opinions contained in these blogs are the student’s.

4 min read

Zebras are distinctive African equines with black and white striped coats. There are three living species: the plains zebra (which we see here in the Lowveld), Grevy’s zebra and the mountain zebra. As a member of the equus family, zebras are most closely related to horses and donkeys. 

Zebras main protection against heat comes from their stripes. The contrast between black which soaks up sunlight and white which reflects it, helps them to remain cool. In fact, all absorb around 30% of the sun’s rays and their patterns dispel the rest. Their stripes also provide extra camouflage on very hot days, enabling them to blend into the distorted, shimmering landscape so predators can’t see them from a distance. 

A zebra foal stands contrasted against a bright green background of dense foliage in the South African bush. 

Some stats about zebras:

  1. Height : 1,35 metres 

  2. Weight: 320 kilograms 

  3. Lifespan: 20 years

  4. Habitat & distribution: Open woodland, scrub & grass. 

  5. Home rage: 110–220 kilometres

  6. Gestation: One year (360–390 days)

  7. Number of young: Single foal

  8. Food: Grazers, occasional browsers

  9. Zebra droppings are similar in shape to, but much smaller than, horse droppings

White and black or black and white?

Each zebra has a unique stripe pattern, a barcode, or fingerprint so to speak. When a young zebra is born, the mare will screen her foal from any other zebra until her own stripe patterns have imprinted on the youngster, ensuring recognition. The plains zebra has characteristic “shadow stripes” between the black and white stripes of the rump which gives the body a dirty chestnut colour. 

The tail of the zebra plays an important role in swatting flies. To differentiate between male and female zebras, there are distinguishing features such as a thin black stripe from the legs to the tail for the males and a wider black wedge for the females. Both sexes have black muzzles containing a flexible upper lip which is used to pull grass towards their incisors and bite it off.

What do zebras eat?

A herd of plains zebra stand together in the Kruger National Park.

Zebras are unselective bulk feeders. Eating a lot of fibre means they require a regular supply of water to facilitate digestion. Zebras must drink daily and are seldom further than 10 kilometres from water. Zebras are picky when it comes to drinking water and will take the time to make sure they are drinking clean water. This need for clean water causes them to migrate to new areas when their current water source is not suitable. As they do not have a set territory, different groups of zebras will come together in spots that are ideal for grazing and drinking water.

Zebras are renowned for their ability to graze on the grassy landscape while being watchful for potential threats. They have a heightened sense of smell, sight and hearing which makes them aware of their surroundings. They tend to feast on short, green grass that sprouts after a fire or after rainfall, but can also manage with tall, coarse vegetation. The grassland succession process involves the taller grass being cropped down to a length more suitable for the needs of wildebeest and other antelopes, which the zebras are often found in close proximity to due to their expertise in detecting predators.

Zebras are hind-gut fermenters. Lacking the four-chambered stomach of a ruminant, zebras pile all their often fibrous food into one gut which digests via fermentation. The breakdown  of cellulose is less effective than with a ruminant but they can digest large amounts of food faster. Large quantities of gas are released as a byproduct and this inflates their bellies so that they always  look fat and healthy. This is also the cause of the flatulence experienced when zebras take fright and run away.

What noise do zebras make?

A zebra stands with its back to the camera, looking over its shoulder.

A zebra’s bray is very similar to a donkey’s bray. It starts at a low  growling sound and builds into something that sounds like a high squeal. When alarmed, zebras make a high pitched and repeated “kwa-ha-ha”, an iconic call of African bushveld. 

Zebras are dust-bathers and frequently roll in loose dirt, probably to do with parasite control and thermoregulation. Interesting facts about zebras: Zebras sweat to keep their bodies cool when it’s hot. They have a special protein that helps move the sweat away from their skin faster. Zebras are often hunted by lions, which are their biggest predator..

These are just some of the fascinating facts about zebras that you’ll learn on a Bushwise course. Find the right course for you!


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