After all, are zebras white with black stripes or vice versa?

The animal world is extremely fascinating, and many mysteries surround it. One of them—which you may have wondered by already—is about the zebra. Is it black with white stripes or the other way around? This mammal originates from the savannas in southern and central Africa, is known for its exotic pattern of colors, in addition to being a calm behavior animal, which spends its days grazing and eating plants, grasses, shrubs, leaves and branches.

There are three three species in the world: the plain zebra (Equus quagga) the most common being found in Ethiopia, East Africa, Southern South Africa and Angola; the mountain zebra (Equus zebra), which is silvery-white in color, with black or dark brown stripes, which is threatened with extinction; and the Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi), which it has cone-shaped ears — resembling a donkey. This species inhabits the savannas of Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia.

What do they all have in common? According to biologist Tim Caro, a behavioral and evolutionary ecologist at the University of California, all zebras have the same skin color: black. But that claim alone doesn’t answer the riddle about zebra coloration—and even though they have black skin, some genetic processes determine their fur color. Caro explained to Live Science that, in these animals, a process similar to that of humans takes place, such as a light-skinned person having naturally dark hair.

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the true color of zebras

Previously, zebras were believed to be white with black stripes, as they have more lighter than darker fur—the belly part is usually white. However, some embryological findings point out that zebras are black animals, and that stripes are genetically determined. That is, the follicles that give rise to hair are filled with melanocytic cells, or melanocytes (which produce melanin).

Does this zebra look white and black or black and white to you? (Image: Adriaan Greyling/Pexels)

Melanin is what determines the color of skin, fur and hair in mammals. Drawing a parallel: if you pull the memory in biology classes, you must remember that it is the absence of this pigment that characterizes albinism in humans, for example. Therefore, the more melanin, the darker the hair or hair. On the other hand, the less melanin, the lighter the coloring (blonde and white, for example).

This would explain why zebras have black fur: they are full of melanin. On the other hand, melanin is absent from the white threads. In essence, this is because the follicles that make up the white streaks have “inactivated” melanocytes—meaning they don’t produce any pigment at all.

According to Caro, melanin production from melanocytes is “inactivated” during the development of a white hair, but not a black one. Therefore, zebras are black, and their genetics are what determines the inactivation of melanin production in white regions.

Coloring has to do with behavior

Investigations into the coloration of zebras are an old debate. Some scientists believe there is a specific reason for this genetic condition. One of the theses is that the animal uses lines to confuse predators (lions, for example, would have difficulty in identifying an individual to chase in the middle of a striped flock).

The second is that stripes help to regulate body temperature. The white part of the body would be more efficient at reflecting sunlight and the black part at warming the body. And lastly, the zebra pattern is also useful for warding off insects. Some studies show that stripes hinder mosquitoes when they land.

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