AppearanceThe plains zebra is mid-sized, smaller on average than the other two zebra species, and thick bodied with relatively short legs. There is some variation in size, based on the animals' condition and subspecies. Adults of both sexes can stand from 1.1 to 1.45 m high at the withers , are 2.17 to 2.46 m long, not counting a 47 to 56 cm tail, and weigh 175 to 385 kg . Males may weigh 10% more than females.
Like all zebras, they are boldly striped in black and white, and no two individuals look exactly alike. They also have black or dark muzzles. The natal coat of a foal is brown and white. All have vertical stripes on the forepart of the body, which tend towards the horizontal on the hindquarters. The northern populations have narrower and more defined striping; southern populations have varied but lesser amounts of striping on the underparts, the legs and the hindquarters. Southern populations also have brown "shadow" stripes between the black and white colouring. These are absent or poorly expressed in northern zebras.
Embryological evidence has shown that the zebra's background colour is dark and the white is an addition. The first subspecies to be described, the now-extinct quagga, had plain brown hindquarters. There have been various mutations of the zebra's pelage, from mostly white to mostly black. Rare albino zebras have been recorded in the forests of Mount Kenya.
NamingIn 2004, C. P. Groves and C. H. Bell investigated the taxonomy of the zebra genus, ''Equus'', subgenus ''Hippotigris''. They published their research in the journal ''Mammalian Biology''. They revised the subspecies of the plains zebra ''Equus quagga''. Six subspecies are now recognisable.
⤷ Quagga, †''Equus quagga quagga'' – Boddaert, 1785
⤷ Burchell's zebra, ''Equus quagga burchellii'' – Gray, 1824
⤷ Grant's zebra, ''Equus quagga boehmi'' – Matschie, 1892
⤷ Maneless zebra ''Equus quagga borensis'' – Lönnberg, 1921
⤷ Chapman's zebra, ''Equus quagga chapmani'' – Layard, 1865
⤷ Crawshay's zebra, ''Equus quagga crawshayi'' – De Winton, 1896
Sometimes another subspecies is distinguished in Eastern Zimbabwe and Western Mozambique:
⤷ Selous' zebra, ''Equus quagga selousi'' - Pocock 1897
The quagga was originally classified as a separate species, ''Equus quagga'', in 1778. Over the next 50 years or so, many other zebras were described by naturalists and explorers. Because of the great variation in coat patterns , taxonomists were left with a great number of described "species", and no easy way to tell which of these were true species, which were subspecies, and which were simply natural variants. The quagga was the first extinct creature to have its DNA studied. Recent genetic research at the Smithsonian Institution has demonstrated that the quagga was in fact not a separate species at all, but diverged from the plains zebra, between 120,000 and 290,000 years ago, and suggests that it should be named ''Equus burchellii quagga''. However, according to the rules of biological nomenclature, where there are two or more alternative names for a single species, the name first used takes priority. As the quagga was described about 30 years earlier than the Burchell's zebra, it appears that the correct terms are ''E. quagga quagga'' for the quagga and ''E. quagga burchellii'' for the plains zebra, unless "''Equus burchellii''" is officially declared to be a nomen conservandum.
Burchell's zebra was thought to have been hunted to extinction. However, Groves and Bell concluded in their 2004 publication that "the extinct true Burchell's zebra" is a phantom. Careful study of the original zebra populations in Zululand and Swaziland, and of skins harvested on game farms in Zululand and Natal, has revealed that a certain small proportion shows similarity to what now is regarded as typical "burchellii". The type localities of the subspecies ''Equus quagga burchellii'' and ''Equus quagga antiquorum'' are so close to each other that the two are in fact one, and that therefore the older of the two names should take precedence over the younger. They therefore say that the correct name for the southernmost subspecies must be ''burchellii'' not ''antiquorum''. The subspecies ''Equus quagga burchellii'' still exists in KwaZulu-Natal and in Etosha.
StatusOverall, the plains zebra population remains stable, and the species faces no major threat that would cause range-wide decline. The zebra can be found in numerous protected areas across its range, including the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, Tsavo and Masai Mara in Kenya, Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, Etosha National Park in Namibia, and Kruger National Park in South Africa. There are some stable populations in unprotected areas.
Some local populations, though, have faced great declines and even extinctions. Though facing decline in numbers the plains zebra population is thriving at about 750,000. One subspecies, the quagga, is now extinct. In Tanzania, the zebra population has decreased by 20% from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s. Zebras are threatened by hunting for their hide and meat, and habitat change from farming. They also compete with livestock for food, and are sometimes culled. Poaching is largely a threat to northern populations, while southern populations are threatened mostly by habitat loss. Recent civil wars in Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Uganda have caused dramatic declines in all wildlife populations, including those of plains zebra. It is now extinct in Burundi. Civil war in Angola during much of the past 25 years has devastated its wildlife populations, including its once-abundant plains zebra, and destroyed the national parks administration and infrastructure.
Nevertheless, plains zebras are protected in most of their range. They are an important economic source in tourism.
BehaviorThe plains zebra is highly social and usually forms small family groups called harems, which consist of a single stallion, several mares, and their recent offspring. The adult membership of a harem is highly stable, typically remaining together for months to years. Groups of all male "bachelors" also exist. These are stable groups of 2-15 males with an age-based hierarchy led by a young male. These males stay in their groups until they are ready to start a harem. The bachelors prepare for their adult roles with play fights and greeting/challenge rituals, which take up most of their activities. Multiple harems and bachelor groups come together to form herds. Plains zebras are unusual among harem-holding species in forming these groups. In addition, pairs of harems may create temporarily stable subgroups within a herd, allowing individuals to interact with those outside their group. Among harem-holding species, this has only been observed in primates like the gelada and the hamadryas baboon.
Stallions form and expand their harems by abducting young mares from their natal harems. When a mare reaches sexual maturity, she will exhibit the estrous posture, which attracts nearby stallions, both bachelors and harem leaders. Her family stallion will chase off or fight stallions attempting to abduct her. Even after a young mare is isolated from her natal harem, the fight over her continues until her estrous cycle is over, and it starts again with the next estrous cycle. It is rare that the mare's original abductor keeps her for long. When the mare finally ovulates, the male that impregnates her keeps her for good. Thus, the mare becomes a permanent member of a new harem. The estrous posture of a female becomes less noticeable to outside males as she gets older, hence competition for older females is virtually non-existent.
Mares exist in a hierarchy, with the alpha female being the first to mate with the stallion and being the one to lead the group. When new mares are added to the group, they are met with hostility by the other mares. Thus, the stallion must shield the new mares until the aggression subsides. The most recently added females rank lowest. Females that become unfit or weak may drop in their rank, though. The female membership of a harem stays intact even if a new stallion takes over. Zebras strengthen their social bonds with grooming. Members of a harem nip and scrape along the neck, shoulders, and back with their teeth and lips. Mothers and foals groom the most often, followed by siblings. Grooming shows social status and eases aggressive behaviour.
A stallion will defend his group from other males. When challenged, the stallion issues a warning to the invader by rubbing nose or shoulder with him. If the warning is not heeded, a fight breaks out. Zebra fights often become very violent, with the animals biting at each other's necks, heads or legs, wrestling to the ground, and occasional kicking. Sometimes a stallion will lie still on the ground as if surrendering, but once the other male lets up, will strike and continue the fight. Most fighting occurs over young mares in estrus, and as long as a harem stallion is healthy, he will usually not be challenged. Only unhealthy stallions have their harems taken over, and even then the new stallion gradually takes over pushing the old one out without a fight.At least six different calls have been documented for the plains zebra. One of which is its distinctive high-pitched contact call heard as "a-''ha'', a-''ha'', a-''ha''" or "kwa-ha, kaw-ha, ha, ha". When a predator is sighted, a zebra will make a two-syllable alarm call. A loud snort is made when moving in cover of potential danger. When in contentment, a zebra will make a more drawn-out snort. Males will make a short high-pitched squeal when hurt and foals will emit a drawn out wail when in distress. There are two main facial expressions made by zebras. One is for greeting and involves the ears sticking up and directed forward; the other is threatening and involves the ears down.
HabitatThe plains zebra's range stops short of the Sahara from South Sudan and southern Ethiopia extending south along eastern Africa, as far as Zambia, Mozambique, and Malawi, before spreading into most southern African countries. They are regionally extinct in Burundi and Lesotho, and they may have lived in Algeria in the Neolithic Era.
Plains zebras generally live in treeless grasslands and savanna woodlands but can be found in a variety of habitats, both tropical and temperate. However they are generally absent from deserts, dense rainforests and permanent wetlands. Zebras also live in elevations from sea level to 4,300 m on Mount Kenya. They rely on rainfall for food and water, and go on great migrations to follow the rains. The zebras will migrate up to 700 miles for food. Other grazers also migrate. Plains zebras are highly water-dependent and are usually found within 25–30 kilometres of a water source.
ReproductionThe stallion mates with all his mares. Mares may give birth to one foal every twelve months. The birthing peak is during the rainy season. She nurses the foal for up to a year. The stallion is generally intolerant of foals that are not his. It is possible that zebras practice infanticide and feticide; such incidences have been observed in both captive individuals and in nature. In the film "Great Zebra Exodus," a mare was trying to protect her foal from a new stallion as its father was a fallen stallion. Like horses, zebras are able to stand, walk, run from danger, and suckle shortly after they are born. At the moment of birth, a mother zebra keeps any other zebra away from her foal, including the stallion, the other mares, and even the previous offspring. Later, though, they all bond. Within the group, a foal has the same rank as its mother. Plains zebra foals are protected by their mother as well as the head stallion and the other mares in their group. Even with parental protection, up to 50% of zebra foals are taken by predation, disease, and starvation each year.
Young male zebras eventually leave their family groups. This is not because of sexual maturity or being kicked out by their fathers, but because their relationship with their mothers have faded after the birth of a sibling. The young stallion then seeks out other young stallions for company. Young females may stay in the harem until they are abducted by another stallion.
FoodIn one study, the zebra's diet was estimated to be 92% grass, 5% herbs, and 3% shrubs. Unlike many of the large ungulates of Africa, the plains zebra does not require short grass to graze. It eats a wide range of different grasses, preferring young, fresh growth where available, and also browses on leaves and shoots from time to time. In consequence, it ranges more widely than many other species, even into woodlands, and it is often the first grazing species to appear in a well-vegetated area. Zebras have a simple stomach and use hindgut fermentation , which allows them to digest and assimilate larger amounts of forage during a 24-hour period. Thus, zebras are less selective in foraging, but they do spend much time eating. The zebra is a pioneer grazer and prepares the way for more specialized grazers like blue wildebeests and Thomson's gazelles which depend on shorter and more nutritious grasses.
The plains zebra's major predators are lions and spotted hyenas. Nile crocodiles are also great threats during migratory river crossings. Wild dogs, cheetahs, and leopards also prey on zebras, although the threats they pose are generally minor and they mostly attack the foals. Olive baboons may prey on foals, but pose no threat to adults. The zebra can be a formidable adversary, since they have a strong bite and a kick powerful enough to kill land predators. They often try to outrun larger predators such as lions and spotted hyenas, whereas they often stand their ground with the smaller predators.
CulturalThe zebra is revered in some African cultures as a symbol of beauty. In the dances of the Karamojong tribe of Uganda, women would paint themselves in zebra stripes and act like them. The Dube tribe of South Africa features a zebra on its totem. Zebras also appear on the coat of arms of Botswana.
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