Zebras, with their familiar horse-like physique and their distinct black and white striping pattern, are among the most recognizable of all mammals. We learn at an early age to distinguish zebras from other animals (when learning the alphabet, youngsters are often shown a picture of a zebra and are taught 'Z is for Zebra').
But our knowledge of zebras usually ends with that early introduction. So in this article, I'd like to explore ten things we should all know about zebras, ten things other than the fact that they have stripes and a respectable command of the letter Z.
FACT: Zebras belong to the genus Equus.
The genus Equus includes zebras, asses, and horses. There are three species of zebra:
- Burchell's zebra (Equus burchellii)
- Grevy's zebra (Equus grevyi)
- Mountain zebra (Equus zebra)
FACT: Zebras are not the only members of the genus Equus to possess stripes.
Various species of asses, including the African wild ass (Equus asinus), have some stripes (for instance, Equus asinus has stripes on the lower portion of its legs). Zebras are nonetheless the most distinctively striped of the equids.
FACT: Burchell's zebra is named after the British explorer, William John Burchell.
William Burchill explored southern Africa for five years (1810-1815) during which time he collected numerous specimens of plants and animals. He sent the specimens to the British Museum where they were placed in storage and where, unfortunately, many of the specimens were said to have been left to perish. This negligence led to a bitter row between Burchell and museum authorities. One museum authority, John Edward Gray (the keeper of the museum's Zoological Collections) used the powers of his position to embarass Burchell. Gray assigned the scientific name 'Asinus burchelli' to Burchell's zebra (the Latin 'Asinuss' meaning 'ass' or 'fool'). It was not until later that the scientific name for Burchell's zebra was revised to its current 'Equus burchelli' (Lumpkin 2004).
FACT: Grevy's zebra is named after a former French President.
In 1882, the emperor of Abyssinia sent a zebra as a gift to the president of France at the time, Jules Grevy. The unfortunate animal died on arrival and was stuffed and placed in the Natural History Museum in Paris, where a scientist later noted its unique stripe pattern and christened it a new species, Equus grevyi, after the French president to whom the animal had been sent (Lumpkin 2004).
FACT: The strip pattern on every zebra is unique.
This unique stripe pattern provides researchers with an easy method for identifying the individuals they study.
FACT: Mountain zebras are skilled climbers.
This climbing skill comes in handy considering mountain zebras inhabit mountain slopes in South Africa and Namibia up to elevations of 2000m above sea level. Mountain zebras have hard, pointed hooves that are well-suited for negotiating the slopes (Walker 2005).
FACT: You can distinguish among the three species by looking for a few key features.
Mountain zebras have a dewlap. Burchell's zebras and Grevy's zebras do not have a dewlap. Grevy's zebras have a thick strip on their rump and extends towards their tail. Grevy's zebras also have a broader neck than the other species of zebras and a white belly. Burchell's zebras often have 'shadow strips' (stripes of a lighter color that occur between the darker stripes). Like Grevy's zebras, some Burchell's zebras have a white belly.
FACT: Adult male Burchell's zebras are quick to defend their families.
Male Burchell's zebras ward off predators by kicking or biting them and have been known to kill hyaenas with a single kick (Source: Ciszek).
FACT: A 'zebdonk' is a cross between a Burchell's zebra and a donkey.
Other names for a zebdonk include zonkey, zebrass, and zorse.
FACT: There are two subspecies of Burchell's zebra.
Grant's zebra (Equus burchelli boehmi) is the more common subspecies of Berchell's zebra. Chapman's zebra (Equus burchelli antiquorum) is the less common subspecies of Burchell's zebra.