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The Zebra's Stripes


ALMOST every writer who treats of the colours of animals refers to Galton's observations that in the bright starlight of an African night zebras are practically invisible even at a short distance; but there can be no doubt that their peculiar striped appearance is also of great protective value in broad daylight. On a recent zebra hunt near Cradock, in which I took part, several members of our party commented on the difficulties of seeing zebras even at moderate distances, although there was nothing to hide them, the black and white stripes blending so completely that the animals assume a dull brown appearance quite in harmony with the general colour of the locality in which they are found, and in which, for instance, Rooi Rehbok (Pelea capreolata) is also well protected on account of its peculiar brownish coat. A member of our party, who on another occasion gave proof that he is possessed of excellent eyesight, and who has frequently hunted in similar localities, saw a zebra which was wounded in one of the front legs at a distance of about 400 yards, and strange to say he mistook it for a big baboon. In a letter which I received from him a few days ago, he said, “It galloped like a baboon from me, and I could only see that the colour was greyish-brown. At about 500 yards from me it ran on to a little krantz, and mounting the highest rock, drew its body together just as a baboon does when its four feet are all together on the summit of a little rock.” His remark as to the greyishbrown colour of the animal is the more valuable, as I believe this gentleman, Mr. Wrench, A.R.M. of Cradock, is quite unprejudiced. In my own letter to him, which drew forth these remarks, I had only asked him for the distance at which he saw the zebra, and I did not ask him how it was that he mistook a black and white zebra for a brown baboon on a perfectly clear South African day. My own observations also confirm that the stripes of the zebra are of protective value. Riding along a slope I suddenly saw four zebras within 100 yards above me. They were galloping down the hill, but stopped when they caught sight of me. As soon as they stopped I saw their stripes pretty distinctly. After I had fired and wounded one of them, they started again galloping down the hill round me in a semicircle at a distance of about 70 yards. All this time they presented a dull brown appearance, no stripes being visible, although I had my attention fixed on this point. They disappeared beyond a ridge, went down a little valley, and I heard afterwards that they ascended the next slope, which was not more than 1500 yards away from where I stood with a native servant. Yet even this lynx-eyed native could not see them going up this slope. They had vanished from us.

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SCHÖNLAND, S. The Zebra's Stripes. Nature 46, 6–7 (1892).

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