The Plains Zebra (Equus quagga, formerly Equus burchelli) is the most common and geographically widespread form of zebra. These Zebra were once found on plains and grasslands from the south of Ethiopia right through east Africa as far south as Angola and eastern South Africa. Plains Zebra inhabit open, grassy plains or well-grassed woodlands.
Plains Zebra are much less numerous than they once were, because of human activities such as hunting for their meat and hides, as well as invasion on much of their former habitat, however, they remain common in game reserves.
Plains Zebra Characteristics
Plains Zebra are medium sized and thick-bodied with relatively short legs. Both male and female Plains zebra stand about 1.4 metres (4.6 feet) high at the shoulder, are approximately 2.3 metres (8 feet) long and weigh about 294 kilograms (646 pounds) however males may weigh 10% more than females.
Like all zebra, they are boldly striped in black and white and no two individuals look exactly alike. All have vertical stripes on the forepart of the body, which travel towards the horizontal stripes on their hindquarters. The northern species of Plains Zebra have narrower and more defined striping whereas southern populations have varied but lesser amounts of striping on the under parts, the legs and the hindquarters.
Like all zebra, Plains zebra have acute vision and hearing which helps them detect predators early. They also have an excellent sense of taste in which they can detect slight changes of their food quality.
Plains Zebra Diet
These zebra graze two-thirds of the day on red oat grass, bark, roots and stems. They will also eat a variety of grasses, along with some additional browse like leaves and twigs. Plains zebra live in eastern and southeastern Africa where there are only two seasons, wet and dry. Zebra rely on rainfall for food and water and therefore have to go on great migrations to follow the rains. The zebra will migrate up to 700 miles for food. Other grazers also must do the same thing. Plains zebra can not survive very long without water and must be at least 25 – 30 kilometres from a water source.
Plains Zebra Social Structure
Plains zebra stay in family groups of a stallion, or male and several mares, however, different families will come together in huge herds of hundreds of zebras. Herds will mingle with wildebeests, ostriches and antelope while they graze and even come to depend on them as additional protection against predators. Zebra are always busy and alert and very noisy. They make a lot of sounds. During the rainy season in the Serengeti, aggregate herds of up to 10,000 individuals may form, part of one of the last great wildlife spectacles in the world.
Plains Zebra communicate with each other. The mares will produce a ‘whiney’ sound when separated from their foals and ‘nicker’ to warn of danger. The zebra alarm is a ‘yelping bark’ which they all make as they make their escape from predators.
Mares exist in a hierarchy with the alpha female being the first to mate with the stallion and being the one to lead the group. When new mares are added to the group, they are met with hostility by the other mares. Thus the stallion must shield the new mares until the aggression subdues.
Zebra strengthen their social bonds with grooming. Members of a harem nip and scrape along the neck, shoulders and back with their teeth and lips. Mothers and foals groom the most often followed by siblings. Grooming shows social status and eases aggressive behaviour.
Plains Zebra Reproduction
In the wild, mares reach sexual maturity between 2 – 4 years. Males are able to compete for mares after they reach about 4 years of age. When gathering females for breeding, rival stallions compete fiercely by pushing, kicking and biting each other. Once a male establishes a harem, ownership of that harem is rarely disputed, unless he is unfit or sick. The gestation period of a zebra is about 12 – 13 months (365 – 390 days).
Since a mare may come into estrus (ready for breeding) within days of giving birth, she can conceive almost yearly. The female gives birth to usually one foal, as twins are rare. At birth, a foal weighs about 70 pounds (32 kilograms). The foal can stand almost immediately and run within a day. Although a foal may graze within a week of birth, they continue to suckle for up to 16 months.
The average infant mortality is about 50%, mostly due to predation by lions and spotted hyena. The average life span of the Plains zebra is 20 – 25 years in the wild and 40 years in captivity.
Plains Zebra Predators
The Plains zebra main predators are lions and spotted hyenas. Nile crocodiles are also great threats during river crossings. Wild dogs, cheetahs and leopards also prey on zebra, although the the threats they pose are generally minor. For protection from land predators the Zebra retreats into open areas with good visibility at night time.
Plains Zebra Sub-species
The Grant’s Zebra
The Plains zebra has differentiated into several subspecies, two of which are now extinct. The Grant’s zebra (Equus burchelli boehmi), pictured left, is the most common of the plains zebra subspecies. The Grant’s zebra is the best studied of the plains zebra and much of what we know of the behaviour and biology of the species comes from work done with this subspecies in the wild and in zoos.
With broad black stripes on a white background (Africans, reportedly, see white strips on a black background), this subspecies is the zebra most frequently seen in zoos around the world. In the wild its distribution extends from southern Sudan through East Africa south to the Zambesi River.
There may be some 300,000 left in the wild, on the Serengeti-Mara Plains alone there are an estimated 150,000 plains zebras. During the rainy season in the Serengeti, aggregate herds of up to 10,000 individuals may form, part of one of the last great wildlife spectacles in the world.
The Chapman’s zebra or the Damara zebra (Equus burchelli antiquorum) is a subspecies of Plains zebra occurring from Angola and Namibia across northern South Africa to Transvaal. It is characterized by a pattern of broad, dark stripes alternating with thin, light shadow-stripes. The stripes fade into the brownish color of the body on the hindquarters and are absent altogether on the legs.
Another southern subspecies of the Plains zebra, the Burchell’s zebra (Equus burchelli burchelli), now extinct, lacked stripes on the hindquarters. Its basic body color was reddish-yellow.
Burchell’s zebra existed from southern Botswana into the Orange Free State of South Africa. As European settlement spread northward from the Cape to colonial Southern Rhodesia, this subspecies was hunted to extinction. The wild herds had disappeared by 1910 and the last known individual died in the Berlin Zoo in 1918.
Plains Zebra Conservation Status
The Plains zebra endangerment situation is less alarming than that of other zebra. The Plains zebra is the most abundant wild member of the horse family, with a wide range and numbers probably exceeding 750,000. However, on a local level, the Plains Zebra is still threatened by hunting and by habitat change from ranching and other kinds of farming.