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A new study out of UCLA suggests the way zebras evolved could be closely linked to the weather.

Evolution of zebra stripes may be linked to the weather, according to new study

Cheryl Santa Maria
Digital Reporter

Friday, January 30, 2015, 4:41 PM - A new study out of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) suggests zebra stripes may have evolved to help keep the animals cool in Africa's warm climate.

There are several species of African animals with striped patterns -- like hyenas and the lesser-known western bongo and okapi -- but the zebra stands out as the most recognizable.

For years it was thought that zebra stripes acted as camouflage or as a method to control body heat, but none of these theories have been extensively tested until recently.

A team of researchers from UCLA collected data on more than two dozen environmental variables and looked at how they may influence the stripe patterns on the plains zebra in 16 different geographical locations in Africa. It was discovered the stripes are closely related to temperature and precipitation in the animal's habitat.

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Zebra with the most prominent torso stripes typically live in warmer, northern regions. Those with less prominent stripes are more often seen in the cooler south.

The animals may require an advanced cooling system because of an inefficient digestive system, which keeps them grazing in the heat for longer periods than other African animals.

"Zebra have a need to keep foraging throughout the day, which keeps them out in the open more of the time than other animals," Ren Larison, a researcher in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA, told LiveScience.

"An additional cooling mechanism could be very useful under these circumstances." 

There's a theory that black and white stripes can generate tiny breezes over a zebra's body, but this hasn't been tested -- and some researchers disagree with the notion entirely.

Researcher Tim Caro of the University of California told LiveScience the stripes may actually be a "function of fly avoidance", as the disease-borne insects have a hard time identifying striped surfaces.

The ULCA team says more research needs to be done into the function of zebra stripes and it's likely they perform a number of functions.


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