Zebra Study: Why Zebras Have Black And White Stripes: New Study Says Not For Camouflage

A new study done by the University of Calgary and UC Davis has led to some new thoughts on the purpose of Zebra stripes. The general thought has always been the stripes were used for camouflage, but it turns out that might not be the case.

“The most longstanding hypothesis for zebra striping is crypsis, or camouflaging, but until now the question has always been framed through human eyes,” said the study’s lead author, Amanda Melin, an assistant professor of biological anthropology at the University of Calgary, Canada.

zebra stripes
zebra stripes

“We, instead, carried out a series of calculations through which we were able to estimate the distances at which lions and spotted hyenas, as well as zebras, can see zebra stripes under daylight, twilight, or during a moonless night.

Past thoughts and studies on zebra stripes were based on what humans see, but Amanda Melin, an assistant professor of biological anthropology at the University of Calgary, Canada has decided to look at these stripes from a new view. Using careful calculations, the study looked at the zebra stripes from distances lions would use in daylight, twilight and moonless nights. It turned out that the stripes would not help hide the zebra by breaking up the outline, by the time lions were close enough to actually see the stripes, they would have already heard and smelled the zebra.

A zebra grazing on the grassy plains gazes at the researchers' chart used for color-calibrating images. (Tim Caro/UC Davis)
A zebra grazing on the grassy plains gazes at the researchers’ chart used for color-calibrating images. (Tim Caro/UC Davis)

“The results from this new study provide no support at all for the idea that the zebra’s stripes provide some type of anti-predator camouflaging effect,” Caro said. “Instead, we reject this long-standing hypothesis that was debated by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace.”

Discrediting this study has helped put more weight behind some earlier findings Meline concluded when she conducted a study with Tim Caro, a UC Davis professor of Wildlife biology. In their previous study, they were able to find evidence that suggested the stripes might simply be there to help discourage biting flies, which are a natural pest to zebras.

Funding for the study was provided by the Wenner Gren Foundation, the National Sciences and Research Council of Canada, the National Geographic Society and UC Davis.

The zebra stripes study will be published Friday, Jan. 22, in the journal PLOS ONE.




  1. When they run in groups the stripes crossing in different directions make it more difficult for a predator to isolate and attack a single animal which makes them harder to hunt. Please explain how stripes are a protection against biting insects and that biting insects are a big problem with zebras. Makes no sense

  2. zebra stripes Reply

    Research some years ago said the stripes confused predators when zebras are in a herd, when they stampede it is difficult for the predator to pick out a single victim unless it is isolated from the herd. It is not about camouflage

  3. Biting flies…maybe.
    Camouflage…definitely – to say otherwise seems like negating the obvious.
    Let’s see what the study publishes first and check their methodology.
    This article it would appear, presents more “click-bait” than substantive information.

  4. This is one of those cases when it could be for both purposes: insect deterrence and camouflage.
    Why does it have to be one or the other?
    i.e. I could use a pencil for writing as well as a weapon.

    Their assertion seems biased and incoherent.

  5. I find it funny that someone actually paid for this study to be done.

  6. I just recently watched a program on public television stating that the reason they have stripes is to confuse the predators in the way of not being able to focus on their target. They used the example of a bike rim. When it’s moving forward quickly it looks like it’s moving the other way. They can’t lock on the prey as easily in a short time frame.

  7. How many years now has it been understood that zebras’ stripes create an optical movement camouflage? When they are running in a herd, the stripes play out like a psychadelic fractal image and confuse they eye of the predator, creating a larger margin of error in singling out one prey animal in the bunch….I see the people doing the research travelled back in time to regain ignorance….idiots…..

  8. Most likely the zebra stripes serve to confuse predators when attacking a herd making it more difficult for individual animals to be selected from the group. Very much the strategy of schooling fish. This breaks down when an individual separates from the group and the illusion is broken.

  9. Maybee-MaybeeNot Reply

    The zebra’s stripes are there BECAUSE WE LIKE THEM!

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