Zebras are equids – members of the horse family (Equidae) and are medium sized, odd-toed ungulates. Zebras are native to southern and central Africa. Although zebras are very adaptable animals as far as their habitats are concerned, most zebras live in grasslands and savannas. The Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) prefers to live in sub desert and arid grasslands.
Zebras were the second species to diverge from the earliest proto-horses, after the asses, around 4 million years ago. The Grevy’s zebra is believed to have been the first zebra species to emerge.
Zebras are generally 2.3 metres (8 feet) long, stand 1.25 – 1.5 metres (4 – 5 feet) at the shoulder and weigh around 300 kilograms (660 pounds), although some can grow to more than 410 kilograms (900 pounds).
Zebras have excellent hearing and eyesight and are capable of running at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. Zebras bodies are well adapted to their surroundings. Zebras have long, thin legs for ease of movement and quick, efficient escapes from predators. Zebras have horse like bodies, however, their manes are made of short, erect hair, their tails are tufted at the tip and their coats are striped. Zebras are best known for their distinctive white and black stripes, which come in different patterns unique to each individual. Their stripes are a form of camouflage called ‘disruptive colouration’ that breaks up the outline of the body so it is difficult to make them out particularly in the dawn light when predators are most active.
Zebras have matching incisors for chewing the strong, high fibre grasses which are easily digested due to their single stomach and hind-gut fermentation.
Zebras are very courageous animals and are not afraid to confront predators. Zebras also have a powerful kick which can cause serious injury to a predator such as a lion, hyena or African wild dog.
Zebras are gregarious animals who congregate in herds of up to 1000 individuals. They live in family groups of between 5 – 20 individuals that consist of one stallion, a few mares and their young ones. These basic family groups stay together even when they do congregate into large herds. Zebras stay in these family groups for many years. If one of the family group ever goes astray and is lost, the rest of the group will spend many days looking for it. If a member of the group becomes sick or is injured, the rest of the group will adjust its pace to accommodate it. When in these large herds, the stallion will spend most of his time chasing off other stallions from other family groups.
Each group of zebra have their own home range. The adult zebras are usually non-related as both female and male zebra leave their natal origin. Within each family group, the stallion will have mating rights to his mares. The mares within the family group become associated for life. When the mares produce foals, they have added protection from the stallion who is always ready to defend his mates and offspring.
Family groups will congregate with other family groups and bachelor herds to form larger herds, especially during migration. Within each individual family group, there is a female hierarchy. The longer the mare has been in the group, the more dominance she has. The alpha mare comes first, followed by her offspring. Then the second longest member comes next, with her offspring and so on.
While migrating, the group hierarchy will stay in this order and walk in single file for many miles. The stallions will either lead or follow at the rear of the herd. This is so they can protect the mares and foals from predators.
Most zebras are considered nomadic, without specific territories, except the Grevy’s zebra who mark their territories with urine and dung. Zebras communicate with each other with sounds and facial expressions. Zebras make loud braying or barking sounds and soft snorting or whuffling sounds. The position of a Zebras ears and how wide open their eyes are and whether their mouths are open or their teeth are bared, all mean something. For example, when their ears are laid flat in a backwards position it means they mean business or to the other members of the group – ‘you had better follow orders’.
Social grooming also produces bonds between the mares. Zebras will use their teeth and lips to nibble along the neck, shoulders and backs of their grooming partners. Most grooming partners are friendly mares, mares and foals or siblings. Grooming also helps ease aggression and confirm social status within the groups.
Zebras tend to be more active during daylight. They spend their nights on short pastures where it is relatively safe from predator ambush. During the night, they will graze an hour or so at a time and move around very little. Other zebras sleep soundly, however, there is always one standing alert and on guard.
At daybreak in warm weather, zebra herds begin filing to pastures of longer grass and may cover many miles before settling for another night. Mass movements between pastures and sleeping grounds and to water at midday, are also peaks of social activity.
Zebras like to associate with other animals such as baboons, giraffes, impala and kudu, however, the most common association is between the zebra and the wildebeest. Unlike their closest relatives, horses and donkeys, zebras have not been truly domesticated.
Zebra foals are born after an 11 to 12 month gestation period. The young zebra is able to stand shortly after birth and able to walk within 15 minutes of birth and can run after only an hour. Newborns have a mane down the back to the tail and are brown, black and white. Zebra foals begin to change to adult colouration after 4 months. 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.
There are three live species of zebra, with several subspecies. The fourth one, the Quagga Zebra (Equus quagga quagga), is extinct. However, aims to reintroduce the Quagga Zebra have been attempted by selective breeding on the ‘Quagga Project’ started by Reinhold Rau in South Africa. It was reported that the third and fourth generations of the project have produced animals which look very much like the depictions and preserved specimens of the Quagga.
Out of the 3 main zebras species, it is the Grevy’s Zebra (Equus grevyi) which is the largest and has many more narrower stripes than the other 2. The Grevy’s Zebra has a long, narrow head making it appear rather mule-like. Read more….
The Plains Zebra (Equus quagga, formerly Equus burchelli) is the most common zebra. The Plains Zebra has or had about twelve subspecies distributed across much of southern and eastern Africa. Read more….
The Mountain Zebra (Equus zebra) is the smallest zebra. You can tell this zebra from the others by its unpatterned white underbelly and the dewlap on its upper throat. The Mountain Zebra of southwest Africa tends to have a sleek coat and narrower stripes than the Plains Zebra. Read more….
The zebras main predators are lions and other big cats, hyenas, wild dogs and man who hunt them for their hides and flesh.