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

Seasonal road bans for the County of Stettler declared for Monday

Road bans go into effect Monday, March 25 at 1 p.m.

Supporters rally for Jason Kenney as UCP leader stops in Red Deer

Kenney promises equalization reform, stopping ‘Trudeau-Notley’ payroll hike, trade, economic mobility

Stettler’s Christ King Church a spectacular structure

Great submission to history book committee on Stettler’s Catholic church

Don’t leave ice huts on lake: County of Stettler

Anglers reminded to remove ice huts from lakes prior to April 1

What are you fertilizer requirements for spring?

Soil tests are still best way to determine levels at beginning of season

VIDEO: Restaurant robots are already in Canada

Robo Sushi in Toronto has waist-high robots that guide patrons to empty seats

Terror at sea: Helicopter rescues frightened cruise passengers in Norway

The Viking Sky cruise ship was carrying 1,300 passengers and crew when it experienced engine trouble

DOJ: Trump campaign did not co-ordinate with Russia in 2016

Attorney General William Barr said special counsel “does not exonerate” Trump of obstructing justice

Judges on Twitter? Ethical guidance for those on the bench under review

Canadian judges involvement in community life are among issues under review

1,300 cruise ship passengers rescued by helicopter amid storm off Norway’s coast

Rescue teams with helicopters and boats were sent to evacuate the cruise ship under extremely difficult circumstances

B.C. university to offer first graduate program on mindfulness in Canada

University of the Fraser Valley says the mostly-online program focuses on self-care and well being

Sentencing judge in Broncos crash calls for carnage on highways to end

Judge Inez Cardinal sentenced Jaskirat Singh Sidhu to eight years

‘Families torn apart:’ Truck driver in fatal Broncos crash gets 8-year sentence

Judge Inez Cardinal told court in Melfort, Sask., that Sidhu’s remorse and guilty plea were mitigating factors

Most Read