Ever Wondered Why Zebras Have Stripes? A New Study Helps To Explain

Zebras: proof it pays to be stripy. GUDKOV ANDREY/Shutterstock

If you’re a harmless herbivore, like the zebra, attempting to lay low in an African savannah full of hungry predators, a flashy coat of striped fur might not seem like the best option. However, there could be a useful and unexpected side effect of this dazzling choice of coloration.

Oddly enough, black and white stripes appear to protect humans and other animals from horsefly bites and other blood-sucking annoyances. As shown in a recent study in the journal Royal Society Open Science, donning striped body paint could reduce the number of horsefly bites a person receives by up to 10 times.

Previous studies have shown that zebras tend to receive fewer bug bites than other similar creatures, but this is the first study to apply this idea to humans and our widespread use of stripes.

Researchers were inspired to scientifically study this idea after noting a number of different tribal groups in Africa, Australia, Papua New Guinea, and North America use striped bodypaint during ceremonies and rituals. The cultural significance of the paint and patterns differ from culture to culture, but the fact it plays a very practical fly-repelling role cannot be ignored, the researchers argue.

Cultures from every part of the world have employed stripey body paint, however, as ever, nature got there first. A shaman or medicine man with extensive body painting, Worgaia, Central Australia. Wellcome Collection/Public Domain

Horseflies can be much more than just a sting and an itch because the female of the species can also transfer blood-borne diseases between animals. As such, warding off these nuisances can be a matter of life or death. 

“We are however convinced that these people know well the horsefly-repelling characteristic of their bodypaintings," lead author Gabor Horvath, from the Department of Biological Physics at Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary, told AFP news agency.

"Essentially, the use of white-striped bodypaintings can be considered as an example for behavioral evolution/ecology and an adaptation to the environment."

Scientists studied this effect by using three different mannequins: one with dark skin, one with light skin, and another with dark skin that had been painted with white stripes. After leaving the mannequins in a meadow near Szokolya in Hungary over the summer, they proceeded to count up the number of bites they received.

“In our field experiment, the model that was least attractive to horseflies was the white-striped dark model,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion.

They even went a step further to understand why the horseflies are so put off by the striped patterns. Using a set of high-tech gadgetry, they showed that the striped body reflected notably less polarized light, which is known to attract water-seeking bugs.

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