Why Do Zebras Have Stripes? Turns Out We Have No Idea

Living among the tall grasses of Africa, zebras naturally evolved skin patterns that allowed them to blend in with the swaying shadowy plains. In addition, they use the width, darkness, and placement of the stripes to recognize one another.

Tim Caro/UC DavisSeen here with its natural enemy, the swatch.

Sounds pretty good, right?

None of that is true.

We didn't make it up ourselves. Generations of biologists accepted those ideas, until new studies finally determined that the stripes may in fact mean nothing. By passing field images of zebras through different filters, researchers found that the stripes provide no actual camouflage in wooded or open areas, in day or night. Also, the zebras' predators have such a developed sense of smell that they would know a zebra is around long before they'd even be able to perceive the stripes.

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Researchers also found that the stripes provide no social benefit. And it makes sense; animals related to the zebra don't have those particular markings, and they recognize each other just fine. So while it would be nice to imagine that zebras barcode-scan each other's stripes like we'd shake hands, it's just not true.

Tim Caro/UC Davis"I don't need stripe patterns to know that piece of crap Gary is in the top left. Where's my five bucks, Gary?!"

So that settles it. Zebras: officially just funny-looking.

And that zebra stripe gum we all had as kids tastes funny.

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