What is a Zebra?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Zebras are equids, meaning members of the horse family, native to Africa. Zebras are probably most famous for their distinctive striped coats, which make them quite memorable animals. In addition to being found in parts of Africa, zebras are also held in captivity in zoos and conservation parks in many parts of the world, for people who want to see these animals in person without taking a safari trip.

Zebras are striped equids that are native to Africa.
Zebras are striped equids that are native to Africa.

The word “zebra” comes from the Portuguese zevra, which means “wild ass.” One can certainly see how the zebra might have been mistaken for the wild ass at first glance, since the animals have similar body types.

Visitors to game reserves in Africa may spot zebra.
Visitors to game reserves in Africa may spot zebra.

There are several different species of zebra, but all of them are in the same genus, Equus, which they share with horses. Like other equids, zebras are odd-toed ungulates with muscular bodies which are built for running. Zebras were among the earliest animals to split from the original equids, along with asses, and as a result, they have had an extended period of time to adapt to the unique challenges of the African landscape.

These animals have very stout, muscular bodies which are designed for immense speed and strength. When threatened, a zebra can choose to run, often choosing a zig-zagging pattern to distract the predator, or they can fight, using powerful jaws and heavy hooves to attack their enemies. Like asses, zebras have tufted tails, and they also have short, upright manes of coarse hair, along with unusually large ears which give these animals a very good sense of hearing.

Zebras are herbivores, eating grass, foliage, and various shrubs. Depending on the species, a zebra may be adapted more for the open plain, or for more heavily wooded and mountainous areas. In all cases, zebras are very social animals, living in large herds which are typically overseen by a single stallion. A zebra's gestation period lasts 13 months, typically producing a single foal which may join the herd when it reaches adulthood, or strike out on its own to find another group of zebras.

Several attempts have been made to domesticate the zebra, with some animals being trained as riding or driving animals. However, zebras appear to be too unpredictable and flighty to fully domesticate, despite the best efforts of intrepid riders. Instead, some people breed zebra hybrids, crossing full blooded zebras with horses and other equids to produce more easily trained and handled animals which retain the characteristic zebra stripes.

The stripes of the zebra appear to have several functions. For one thing, they distract and confuse predators, especially when zebras are in a herd formation, because the stripes make it hard to pick out an individual zebra. The stripes also appear to be unique to each animal, allowing zebras to readily identify each other, and they help to camouflage individual zebras, especially in wooded areas, where the play of light and shadow allows the zebra to blend.

There is some debate as to how to describe the zebra's stripes. They are typically described as white animals with black stripes, but zebras actually have entirely black skin, and the most common zebra mutations create animals which are darker, rather than lighter, suggesting that the zebra is actually black with white stripes. While this might seem a bit pedantic, it can make a good jumping-off point for heated debates at parties, if one feels so inclined.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


When a zebra foal is born the mare will separate from the herd for a while so it learns to recognize her stripe pattern.

They live about 12 years in the wild, up to 30 or so in captivity.

The crossbreeds have some funny names, and are not that pretty. Look for pics of a Zonkey.

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