You might not believe it, but these stripes are not just for show; these stripes have an essential role in a zebra’s body — they are used to control a zebra’s body temperature. So how does this work?
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The findings have been published this month in the Journal of Natural History, the scientific publication of the British Natural History Museum, by amateur naturalist and former biology technician, Alison Cobb and her zoologist husband, Dr Stephen Cobb. Together, they have spent many years in sub-Saharan Africa, where he has directed environmental research and development projects.
The data revealed a temperature difference between the black and white stripes that increases as the day heats up. Whilst this difference stabilises on living zebras during the middle seven hours of the day, with the black stripes 12-15°C hotter than the white, the stripes on a lifeless zebra hide continue to heat up, by as much as another 16°C. This indicates there is an underlying mechanism to suppress heating in living zebras. It is therefore the way the zebra stripes are harnessed as one part of their cooling system, rather than just their contrasting coat colour, that is key to understanding why these animals have their unique patterning.
Like all species in the horse family, zebras sweat to keep cool. Recent research reveals that the passage of sweat in horses from the skin to the tips of the hairs is facilitated by a protein called latherin which is also present in zebras. This makes the sweat frothy, increasing its surface area and lowering its surface tension so it evaporates and prevents the animal [from] overheating.
More details of this study at EurekAlert!
(Image Credit: hbieser/ Pixabay)