This fall, stripes are out and polka dots are in – or at least they are for this adorable little zebra foal. Instead of the timeless traditional black-with-white stripes coloration, this foal is brown with white spots all over its body.
The animal lives in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, a preserved area of the savannah in southwestern Kenya. It was discovered by a Maasai guide and many photographers took the chance to immortalize the little zebra in photos.
“Last night a Maasai guide discovered a one of a kind genetically mutated baby zebra in the Maasai Mara and named it after his surname – Tira,” Wildest Africa shared on their Facebook page. “This morning we were one of the first ones to visit Tira! A few years ago there was a similar case, however, that zebra still maintained the stripes and brush-like tail. Tira, however, has patterns that appear as polka dots!”
The peculiar coloration of Tira is believed to be a case of melanism, where the pigment melanin – responsible for the dark coloring in skin, hair, and fur – is found in higher abundance. For the same reason, Tira’s colors are inverted. Zebras usually have stripes that go round their back and legs, leaving a plain white belly where all the stripes unite. Tira has a brown belly with polka dots and a plain brown back.
While the polka dot pattern is certainly peculiar, melanistic zebras are not unusual. Zoologist Professor Jonathan Bard first described such a case in 1977, where an individual also had a spotted pattern. The extent of melanism is a spectrum, and in zebras, it can present as peculiar patterns. At least they look that way to us. To zebras, all patterns look different.
Zebras recognize each other by their markings, which are unique for each animal, like human fingerprints. In fact, there are actually three species of zebra, each with their own distinct markings ranging from stripe patterns to which part of the body is covered. The stripes are believed to be not for camouflage but instead a way to ward off horsefly bites, which are both dangerous and annoying.
Without stripes, Tira may have to worry about more than horseflies though. Melanistic zebras tend to stand out more clearly from the herds, and especially when they're young, it may make them easier targets for lions and hyenas living in the savannah.
Melanism has been seen occurring in several species, most often in big cats (which we call panthers but are really just melanistic jaguars and leopards) but occasionally in other animals like this fancy chap. The opposite of melanism is albinism, where the amount of melanin is reduced or completely lacking. Albinism is more common, witnessed far and wide in the animal kingdom – zebras included.