Why do zebras have stripes?
The answer to that question, which scientists have wrestled with for over a century, may be most related to temperature. It was previously thought that the stripes existed to confuse lions and the disease-carrying tse-tse fly, but that no longer seems to be the case.
A research team, led by biologist Brenda Larison of the University of California, Los Angeles, studied the stripe patterns of 16 populations of the common plains zebra in Africa. They then analyzed that data across 29 factors in the animals' environments including rainfall, vegetation, population of lions, and disease rates.
The strongest correlation to stripe size and frequency was temperature. Zebras in hotter temperatures had thicker and more numerous stripes. While researchers are not exactly sure how the stripes work, one hypothesis is that the black and white areas react with the warm air at different rates, creating an oppositional airflow cooling effect.
Another hypothesis is that they repel insects which tend to carry infectious diseases more often at higher temperatures. Previous research has shown that biting flies avoid landing on striped surfaces, but its lack of correlation to striping variation indicates that the pattern may act as more than just an insect repellant. The study did however, find the stripes had no effect on lion predation.
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