Zebras like horses and wild asses are all equids, long-lived animals
that move quickly for their large size and have teeth built for
grinding and cropping grass. Zebras have bodies that resemble horses.
manes are made of short, erect hair and their tails are tufted at the
tip and their coats are striped black and white.
Three species of zebra are found in Africa, two of which are found
in East Africa. The most numerous and widespread species in the east
is Burchell's, also known as the common or plains zebra. The other
is the Grevy's zebra, named for Jules Grevy, a president of France
in the 1880s who received one from Abyssinia as a gift, and now
found mostly in northern Kenya. The third species, Equus zebra, is
the mountain zebra, found in southern and southwestern Africa.
The Burchell's zebra is built like a stocky pony. Its coat pattern
can vary greatly in number and width of stripes. The stripes are a
form of disruptive coloration which breaks up the outline of the
body. At dawn or in the evening, when their predators are most
active, zebras look indistinct and may confuse predators by
distorting distance. Their shiny coats dissipate over 70% of
The Plains zebras inhabit savannas, from treeless grasslands to open
woodlands; they sometimes occur in tens of thousands in migratory
herds on the Serengeti plains. Grevy's zebras are now mainly
restricted to parts of northern Kenya. Although they are adapted to
semi-arid conditions and require less water than other zebra
species, these zebras compete with domestic livestock for water and
have suffered heavy poaching for their meat and skins.
Behavior and Habits
The Burchell's zebra’s social system is based on a group of females
(harems) led by a stallion. Stallions establish their harems by abducting
young females (fillies) who have come into their first estrus cycle. These fillies
advertise their condition with a peculiar stance: straddled legs
with raised tail and lowered head. All the stallions in the area
will fight for a filly in this condition, as she will permanently
stay with whichever stallion succeeds in mating with her. The newest
female in a harem assumes lowest social status, and is often
received with hostility by the other females. Once a female has
bonded to a stallion, she will no longer advertise herself when in
When a foal is born the mother keeps all other zebras (even the
members of her family) away from it for 2 or 3 days, until it learns
to recognize her by sight, voice and smell.
While all foals have a close association with their mothers, the
male foals are also close to their fathers. They leave their group
on their own accord between the ages of 1 and 4 years to join an
all-male bachelor group until they are strong enough to head a
The zebra, though water dependent, is a very adaptable grazer, able
to eat both short young shoots and long flowering grasses. It is
often a pioneer in the grassland community—the first to enter tall
or wet pastures. Wildebeests and gazelle follow once the zebras have
trampled and clipped the vegetation shorter.
Predators and Threats
Zebras are important prey for
hyenas, and to a lesser
extent for hunting dogs,
leopards and cheetahs. When a family group
is attacked, the members form a semicircle, face the predator and
watch it, ready to bite or strike should the attack continue. If one
of the family is injured the rest will often encircle it to protect
it from further attack.
Like many species of East Africa’s grazing animals, the Burchell's
zebra is most in danger of habitat loss and competition for water
Thought You Should Know
Romans called Grevy's zebras 'hippotigris' and trained them to
pull two-wheeled carts for exhibition in circuses.
At first glance zebras in a herd might all look alike, but their
stripe patterns are as distinctive as fingerprints are in man.
Scientists can identify individual zebras by comparing patterns,
stripe widths, color and scars.