Yipes, stripes

SCIENCE SKETCH: a quick look at some new science

This week's breaking news is that we (still) don't know what zebra stripes are for! A new study says, rather unshockingly, that they probably aren't much use as camouflage on the open plains.

I observed a zebra herd myself recently. From a certain distance, I couldn't see individual stripes  just a weird gray color. That “certain distance” is lot shorter for lions and hyenas than for humans, and even shorter in low light, according to the estimates of these researchers.

So striped zebras look the same to a predator as unstriped zebras would, except at close range where you really can't miss them (especially if you have a lion's sense of smell). 

I took this picture last month! (Nairobi National Park, Kenya)

Ok, maybe stripes don't make it harder to detect zebras. Couldn't they still make it harder to catch zebras? I can't speak for lions or hyenas, but at close range all of those moving stripes messed with my eyes, like an optical illusion.

This study doesn't address that question. So who knows what zebra stripes are really for! They might deter biting flies, among lots of other possibilities.