Why do zebras have stripes? Perhaps to dazzle away flies

Researchers from University of Bristol look into why zebras have stripes

Zebra stripes are dazzling — particularly to flies.

That’s the conclusion of scientists from the University of Bristol and the University of California at Davis who dressed horses in black-and-white striped coats to help determine why zebras have stripes.

The researchers found that fewer horseflies landed on the cloaked horses than on the ones without striped coats, suggesting that zebra stripes may offer protection from blood-sucking insects that can spread disease.

“This reduced ability to land on the zebra’s coat may be due to stripes disrupting the visual system of the horse flies during their final moments of approach,” said Martin How, a research fellow at the University of Bristol. “Stripes may dazzle flies in some way once they are close enough to see them with their low-resolution eyes.”

From a distance, the flies were equally attracted to both horses and zebras, with the same number of insects hovering around both types of animals. But when the flies got closer, things get dicey. The flies landed less frequently on the zebras and the horses covered in striped coats.

READ MORE: Remembering Nirvana on Cobain’s 52 birthday

“Once they get close to the zebras, however, they tend to fly past or bump into them,” said Tim Caro, a professor in the U.C. Davis Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology. “This indicates that stripes may disrupt the flies’ abilities to have a controlled landing.”

The work , reported in the journal Public Library of Science ONE, seeks to answer one of the oldest questions in zoology — why do zebras have stripes? Charles Darwin had his theories. So did British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace.

But the scientists from Britain and California sought to examine that question by studying both horses and zebras at the Hill Livery in Britain, which works with zoos in Europe on conservation for zebras. That provided a controlled environment where the horses could be dressed up and closely observed to test the theory.

“It’s one of those pieces of research that you say, ‘why hasn’t someone done this before?’” said Tim Woodfine, the director of conservation at Marwell Wildlife in southern England. He did not take part in the study. “It’s simple and neat. I think it’s a great piece of work,” he said.

How, an expert on animal vision, told The Associated Press on Thursday there are reasons to be “quite excited” about the research, which he said helps scientists understand what’s happening in the mind of a fly.

The insights have broader implications for technology such as driverless cars, which are inspired by insect vision. If stripes disrupt a fly, they might also disrupt a driverless car’s systems, according to How.

“What we needed to do is get our mind into the eye of the fly,” How said. “They have very different eyes from us.”

Erica McAlister, the senior curator of flies and fleas at the Natural History Museum in London, said the research contributes information to a subject long debated by scientists.

“We’ve been arguing about zebra stripes for 75 years,” said McAlister, who was also not involved in the study.

READ MORE: B.C. photographer captures otters on ice

But there are also human applications. How says from now on, he’s wearing stripes while riding his bicycle during horse-fly season.

Caro hopes the study will underscore the wonders that remain to be discovered in the natural world.

“If we can try to pique the public’s appreciation of the wonders of nature, they’ll be less cavalier about destroying it,” he said. “That’s my hope.

Danica Kirka, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Councillor Gambell raises motion to fit busses with seat belts

The motion was passed on Tuesday’s council meeting

FormaShape snuffs small electrical fire

Fire department responds to fire in Lake Country for precautionary measures

Melcor Developments supports YMCA Strong Kids with generous $9,000 donation

Local business raises funds to enrich community through YMCA services

Boil water notice extended into Kelowna’s northern boundary

City of Kelowna extends boil water notice to over 100 residences in northern boundary of Kelowna

Kelowna Memorial Cup committee visits 2019 tournament in Halifax

The committee wants to get a first-hand look at how the tournament is organzied

600 new campsites coming to provincial parks and recreation sites across B.C.

Tourism Minister announced half of the new spots to 13 most popular provincial parks

Okanagan housing builds hope for 52 homeless individuals

The 52 unit supported housing apartment officially opens in Vernon

Gardens plant hope for Okanagan residents who were once homeless

Turning Points, in collaberation with Briteland, bring square foot gardening to Blair Apartments

Bear spray culprit released from Penticton RCMP custody

The individual who sprayed the bear spray at Compass House on May 22 has been released

Municipalities protest after B.C. declares marijuana crops ‘farm use’

UBCM president seeks answers in letter to John Horgan government

RCMP set to patrol Okanagan lakes

Vernon-North Okanagan members will be on area waters helping keep boaters safe

Summerland students to raise voices in public speech competition

Public speaking component is included in high school English program

CMHC defends mortgage stress test changes amid calls for loosening rules

Uninsured borrowers must now show they could service their mortgage if rates rose two per cent

Okanagan mill taking two weeks downtime

Vernon-based Tolko Industries tells Armstrong employees mill will take downtime May 27 and June 3

Most Read