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Researchers are learning even more about these fashionable animals, and there's a lesson for humans, too.

Stacey Leasca
Updated February 20, 2019
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Though it may seem like we’ve got it all figured out, there are still plenty of wonderful mysteries left in the world. While we may never know the meaning of life, or how the Earth was formed, we now are one step closer to answering this important question: Why do zebras have stripes?

A new study published in PLOS ONE on Wednesday hopes to answer that question, at least in part.

The evolution of the zebra's two-tone coat could have occurred to help the animal avoid blood-sucking parasites in the wild, according to the study out of the University of Bristol and U.C. Davis. The researchers noted in a statement that a zebra’s stripes help to “dazzle” any would-be bloodsuckers (like tsetse flies and mosquitos). The stripes may prevent the flies from being able to see the animal on close approach, making it all but impossible to land on them.

To come to this conclusion, the team collected hours and hours of video of both captive zebras and domestic horses. They then analyzed the video to discover more about the differences in fly behavior toward domestic horses and zebras.

“Horse flies just seem to fly over zebra stripes or bump into them, but this didn't happen with horses,” Professor Tim Caro, Honorary Research Fellow from the University of Bristol's School of Biological Sciences, said in a statement. “Consequently, far fewer successful landings were experienced by zebras compared to horses.”

The researchers noted that the study showed a zebra’s stripes do not deter horse flies from a distance. Zebras and domestic horses experienced the same rate of circling from the flies. However, the video analyses revealed a stark difference in approach speed. According to the team, horse flies failed to slow down when approaching zebras, which is “essential for a successful landing.”

“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 Dr. Martin How, Royal Society University Research Fellow in the School of Biological Sciences. “Stripes may dazzle flies in some way once they are close enough to see them with their low-resolution eyes.”

The understanding and study of zebra stripes and their ability to “dazzle” would be prey is nothing new. In fact, researchers previously studied this effect and found that a zebra’s stripes allegedly protect it from far bigger prey than a mosquito.

According to a 2011 study by U.K. zoologists, “moving targets with stripes were caught significantly less often and missed more often than targets with camouflage patterns.”

Zebras aren’t alone in using this technique either. As Inverse reported, other animals that use “dazzling” include giraffes, jaguars, and tigers.

Beyond the evolution of stripes, this new research may also prove zebras have developed a keen understanding of how biting flies land. The researchers “directly observed zebra and horse behavior in response to biting flies.” While Zebras exhibited preventative behavior, such as running away and tail swishing, domestic horses did not. “Consequently, any horse flies that did successfully land on zebras spent less time there compared to those landing on horses, with few staying long enough to probe for a blood meal,” the team added.

While the findings may seem like just a fun tidbit, they could actually make a major impact on the equine industry around the world.

“Horse flies are a widespread problem for domestic animals so mitigating techniques, such as the development of anti-fly wear designed to resemble zebra stripes, may, from this research, be an interesting outcome for animal health and wellbeing,” the researchers noted.

Of course, humans can benefit from these findings too. According to findings published in January in the Royal Society Open Science journal, a team of researchers from Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary found that humans wearing stripes, or even humans who painted their bodies with stripes, will likely experience fewer bites.

“We show that the attractiveness to horseflies of a dark brown human body model significantly decreases if it is painted with the white stripes that are used in body paintings,” the authors concluded. “Thus, white-striped bodypaintings, such as those used by African and Australian people, may serve to deter horseflies.”

So, next time you head out on a safari try packing a few pieces of clothing that come with light stripes (think white, khaki, and beige stripes), which may protect you from any itsy bitsy tsetse flies in the future.

Inspired to dress like a zebra? Here are three pieces you can buy for your next safari that could potentially help you mitigate mosquito bites:

Billabong’s New Waves Stripe Wide Leg Pants

Courtesy of Nordstrom

These wide-leg pants will keep you comfortable on long game drives. And, the vertical stripes could help stave off any potential insect bites along the way.

Buy it: Nordstrom.com, $45

CAMIXA Women's Linen Casual Shirt

Courtesy of Amazon

This Camixa linen top will be your best friend in any warm-weather climate. The linen material will keep air flowing, and the delicate stripes could help keep mosquitos at bay.

Buy it: Amazon.com, $60

Skip Hop Riverside Diaper Backpack

Courtesy of Nordstrom

With Skip Hop’s backpack, you’ll be able to bring along everything you need on a game drive and will keep critters away thanks to its subtle khaki-colored stripes.

Buy it: Nordstrom.com, $60

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