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Zebras Are Actually Black With White Stripes, Ecologist Reveals

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A leading biologist has revealed that Zebras are actually black with white stripes.

Tim Caro, a behavioural and evolutionary ecologist and conservation biologist at the University of California, Davis, says that the natural colour of zebras’ skins is black. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that their fur is black with white stripes or vice versa. Rather the real colour of their fur depends on the zebra's melanocytes or the cells that produce pigment for their fur.

Every piece of hair — both light and dark — grows from a follicle filled with melanocyte cells, according to a 2005 review in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology. These cells produce a pigment that determines the colour of hair and skin. This pigment is known as melanin; a lot of melanin leads to darker colours, like dark brown or black, while less melanin leads to lighter colours, such as hazel or blond. Zebras' black fur is chock-full of melanin, but melanin is absent from white fur, in essence, because the follicles that make up the stripes of white hair have "turned off" melanocytes, meaning they don't churn out pigment.

The production of melanin from melanocytes is "prevented during the development of a white hair, but not of a black hair," Caro said in an email. In other words, for zebras, the animals' default state is to produce black hair, making them black with white stripes.

This would be better illustrated with the example of a shaved zebra, as Britannica suggests. According to the website, a full-shorn zebra would be almost unrecognizable as an all-black animal.

However, researchers still aren’t sure why zebras have stripes at all. In the history of the study of zebras, researchers have proposed at least 18 different theories on why zebras have stripes, with explanations ranging from camouflage to protect against predators to marks of uniqueness like a human fingerprint.

“People have been talking about zebra stripes for over a hundred years, but it's just a matter of really doing experiments and thinking clearly about the issue to understand it better,” Caro told BBC Future in 2019. Caro was commenting on a team who, while studying a herd of zebras at Hill Livery in the United Kingdom, dressed horses in black-and-white striped outfits and let them loose among zebras and horses without fake stripes to hopefully gain insight on the purpose of stripes.

The research, however, is still ongoing, although it is hoped that scientists will learn more about the mystery soon.