How Did the Zebra Get Its Stripes? CSULB Biologist and Team Enter Renewed Debate


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A California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) biologist has offered his findings on the studied evolution of zebras’ stripes, the university announced Monday.

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In a September 30 article, published in the online journal Royal Society Open Science, CSULB Biological Sciences Assistant Professor Theodore Stankowich and University of California, Davis Wildlife Biology Professor Tim Caro provide mixed comments on a different zebra study conducted by professors at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Tübingen, Germany

The new paper, titled “Concordance on zebra stripes: a comment on Larison et al. (2015),” compares their previous findings to those from a team led by UCLA’s Brenda Larison that appeared in a January 2015 Royal Society Open Science article, “How the zebra got its stripes: a problem with too many solutions.”

“Based on their findings, they suggest that zebra stripes serve as a way to regulate body temperature and to cool off the animal because they found significant associations of variation in the pattern with temperature — more intense striping in environments that have higher temperatures,” Stankowich said in a statement.

“They also found an association with areas with high precipitation as well, but they focused on temperatures as the most powerful of their findings," he added.

However, the Stankowich and Caro team found that biting fly activity was more important as a mechanism for striping evolution than temperature on its own, according to the release. These findings were published in the April 1, 2014 issue of Nature Communications.

“We combined a factor of high temperature and high humidity for at least six to seven months of the year, which is a good proxy for biting fly activity,” said Stankowich. “We found that this proxy was strongly associated with intense striping. That was clearly the best predictor; it was almost a perfect match for species that had leg stripes and body stripes, as well.”

While Larison’s group solely studied the plains zebra, Stankowich and Caro studied all seven equid species and 21 subspecies, according to the release. Stankowich said that because Larison’s study focused only on the one species, their findings, although interesting on their own, only speak to explaining variation within that group.

The two research teams agreed that further investigation should be geared toward attempting to unlock what the mechanism is behind either biting fly avoidance or cooling.

The Royal Society is the independent scientific academy of the UK and the Commonwealth, and the world’s oldest scientific organization. 

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