Specialists conducted a series of experiments that refute the two most common theories about the necessity of bands of zebras. When researchers painted a mannequin with zebra-like patterns, similar to those that adorn the skin of some tribal communities, they found that there were ten times fewer horsefly bites than on unstriped models. It seems the stripes do something that messes with the flies own movement, making it hard to land.
Horse-flies are an annoying and widespread problem for domestic animals, but researchers believe this problem could be solved with anti-fly coats which resemble zebra stripes.
Scientists have proposed more than a dozen ideas to explain why zebras evolved stripes. When uniformly coloured horses were dressed in "zebra coats" the flies made far fewer landings on the striped areas but were not kept away from the uncovered head. Stripes may therefore offer zebras vital protection, though the researchers aren't entirely sure why the pattern seems to confuse flies.
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There had been four main hypotheses about the advantages zebras accrued by evolving stripes: camouflage to avoid large predators; a social function like individual recognition; thermoregulation, with stripes setting up convection currents along the animal's back; and thwarting biting fly attacks.
"We noticed that tabanids approaching zebras failed to decelerate in a controlled fashion towards the end of their flight trajectories whereas they steadily decelerated before landing or touching horse pelage", the paper reads.
Horse dressed in a striped coat in order to resemble a zebra. Horses, on the other hand, primarily twitch and occasionally swish to ward off flies.
"Once they get close to the zebras, however, they tend to fly past or bump into them", said Caro, a professor in his university's Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology. Zebras swish their tails nearly continuously during the day to keep flies off; they stop feeding if bothered by them; and if the flies are particularly persistent, the zebras will run from them.