Burchell's Zebras are one of the many beautiful animals in South Africa.

Many people know them for their iconic stripes and the never ending riddle about them being black with white stripes, or white with black stripes. A group of zebras is called a 'dazzle'.

Burchell's Zebra

Geographic Range The geographic range of Burchell's zebras spreads throughout south eastern Africa, with the highest population densities in the Serengeti-Mara plains of Kenya and Tanzania. Their range reaches as far north as southern Ethiopia and Sudan, as far west as Namibia, and as far south as the northern regions of South Africa

Physical Description With their distinctive black and white stripes, Burchell’s zebras are easily recognizable. The stripes on the neck to the forelimbs are vertical. These neck stripes continue in the mane which is short and sticks straight up. In most populations, the stripes extend to the belly where they meet. Stripes on the limbs are narrower and horizontal and continue until reaching the hooves. Facial stripes are ordered both horizontally and vertically creating beautiful patterns. Not all stripes are distinctly black and white. Some stripes may appear a faint brown or may leave a brown “shadow” stripe in the white region.

Burchell's zebras are 217 to 246 cm in length, with tail lengths of 47 to 56 cm. At the shoulder, their height is 110 to 145 cm. Males are slightly larger than females and usually have thicker necks as well. New-born foals tend to have shaggy fur with brownish and buff stripes instead of black and white. Burchell’s zebras can be distinguished from other species of zebras because the stripes on their flanks meet on their bellies. Both mountain zebras and Grevy's zebras lack stripes on their bellies.

Reproduction Burchell’s zebras are polygynous; one male stallion leads and mates with a harem of females. Male-male competition is not significant, once males obtain a female, there seems to be a "gentleman's agreement" between the stallions that this female has been taken and cannot be lured away. They can breed throughout the year but most foals are born during the rainy season during the months of November to January. Each mare gives birth to only one foal after a gestation period of 360 to 396 days. Foals weigh about 32 kg when born and are well developed at birth, able to follow the mother back to the herd within a couple of hours. Within 10 or 15 minutes the foal can stand on its own feet and within an hour it is walking around and even running. Weaning is complete after 7 to 11 months. Young reach independence after 1 to 3 years, when they leave their natal groups.

Lifespan/Longevity In the wild, Burchell’s zebras live an average of 9 years. Population growth and average longevity is most severely impacted by predation. Foals are especially vulnerable with 50% of juveniles annually dying due to predation. This high rate of juvenile mortality is also partly due to disease, death of mothers, low nutrition, and drought.

The StripesFour main theories have been purposed to explain the evolution of zebra stripes. The first theory states that these stripes have an anti-predatory function. The stripes may create an “optical illusion” which makes the zebras appear closer than they really are and predators leap too soon when they attack (disruptive coloration). Also, from a distance the black and white colors blend and the massive herd appears gray which enables them to hide better during the night and in dim light. This blending also makes it more difficult for predators to single out individuals from the herd. The second theory proposes that stripes evolved due to social benefits. The pattern of stripes is unique for each individual and serves as a means of identification. Social interactions are based on this particular identification. Studies show that individuals with more stripes receive additional social attention, such as grooming. With these social benefits, it would have been more advantageous to have more stripes. Thirdly, stripes may function in thermoregulation and provide as a natural suncreen. Differences in cooling of the black and white stripes create a rotary breeze. Lastly, these distinctive stripes may protect against tsetse flies. One study demonstrated that tsetse flies prefer solid verses striped objects. None of these theories have been tested thoroughly.

Behavior Burchell's zebras are social, living in permanent family groups composed of one male stallion, 1 to 6 females, and their young. The strong bonds between females are the central relationships within harems. If the dominant stallion leaves or is killed, the harem will remain together waiting for another male to take over. The dominant female preserves the rank order by leading the group in single file movements, in which mares line up according to age correlated rank. Foal rank depends on mother’s rank, they stand one place directly behind her in the line and the newest mare of a harem takes the lowest social rank and is placed at the end. The stallion pulls up the rear of the line taking a defensive role in case of predator attack.

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