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Do Zebras have Black or White Stripes?

Updated on August 26, 2014

Stripy Zebra

A recent visit to Philadelphia Zoo raised the age old question - is a zebra black with white stripes or white with black stripes? There are conflicting perspectives to the answer to this question. What is clear is that every zebra has its own individual markings, like a human fingerprint each pattern is unique to the individual.

Zebra at Philadelphia Zoo


What is a Zebra?

Zebras are a hoofed mammal of the equine family. Native to Africa, they are social herbivores that graze and groom together. Their distinctive coats make them easily recognizable to humans. They inhabit a variety of habitats, including grasslands, savannahs, woodlands and coastal hills. There are three species of Zebra, each with their own variations and sizes. The common plains zebra is about 50–52 inches and can weigh up to 770lb. Zebras walk, trot, canter and gallop like horses. They tend to be slower than horses, but have tremendous stamina and very good eyesight and hearing.

White with Black Stripes?

The San Diego Zoo website states that Zebras are generally thought to have white coats with black (sometimes brown) stripes. The reason being that with most zebras, the stripes end on their belly and toward the inside of the legs, and the rest is all white.

Black with White Stripes?

Most Zebras have dark skin beneath their fur, this makes some scientists believe that black is the actual color of the fur and the white patches are simply areas that lack pigmentation.

The African Wildlife Blog (Erin Keyes) states several reasons why this is correct. Firstly," fair skinned equids would not have fared well over the centuries in the unforgiving hot, arid African regions"

and secondly scientists believe that zebras "diverged from a solid-colored equine, with the African Wild Ass being the first species to appear after this diversion followed by the Plains Zebra"

A report by Adam Egri at Eotvos University in Budapest states that Zebra embryos are completely black and the white stripes appear at the last embryonic stage. This would appear to be firm evidence that they are black with white stripes.

The Three Species of Zebra

Plains Zebra
Mountain Zebra
Grevy's Zebra
most common
found in South West Africa
the largest type
has or had about six subspecies distributed across much of southern and eastern Africa
sleek coat with a white belly and narrower stripes than the plains Zebra
long narrow head
they have broad stripes that fade to grey as they move down the body.They have a lot of white on their legs.
they have a square flap of skin on their throats
found in semi-arid grasslands of Ethiopia and northern Kenya.
narrower stripes with definitive black stripes slicing down the middle of thier backs
white bellies

Grazing Zebra Philadelphia Zoo


What do you think?

Do you think a Zebra is black with white stripes?

See results

Purpose of the Stripes?

1. Confuse predators - Some sources quote the purpose of the stripes is for camouflage. However this does not seem likely in the grassy plains where the environment is dusty and green. Zebra do not freeze or try to hide but move around in a herd. The combination of the stripes and continuous movement of the herd, may confuse predators, giving the zebra more of a chance to escape.

2. Deflect heat - some scientist suggest the alternating color pattern helps the Zebra deflect a large amount of heat.

3.Repel biting insects - A team of biologists at the University of California believe zebras' marking evolved to repel biting insects which tend to avoid striped surfaces. Their findings suggest that black and white surfaces reflect different sorts of visible light which we can't see but flies can. The study found

'there was greater striping on areas of the body in those parts of the world where there was more annoyance from biting flies'

Zebra in Danger

Because of hunting some species of zebra are now considered endangered.

The Cape mountain zebra was hunted to near extinction, however due to conservation efforts the population has since increased to about 700.

Zebra Facts

  • Zebras communicate with each other with high pitched barks and whinnying
  • Zebra are hunted for their meat and skins
  • Zebras can turn their ears in almost any direction.
  • Zebras have an acute sense of smell and taste.
  • Mountain zebras and plains zebras live in groups.
  • Zebras mostly eat grasses.
  • female Zebra can give birth to a foal every twelve months.

So to answer the question, it seems that black with white stripes is the accurate description. The fact that zebra embryos are completely black and the white stripes appear at the last embryonic stage confirms it.


Submit a Comment

  • Ruthbro profile image

    Ruthbro 3 years ago from USA

    Thanks for the lovely comment, I too was surprised to find out they were endangered!

  • travmaj profile image

    travmaj 3 years ago from australia

    What beautiful creatures zebras are, most informative. Sad to learn that some species are now endangered. Great hub and I'm going for black with white stripes...thanks for this.

  • profile image

    Lynne fry 3 years ago

    Very interesting