Research

Zebra stripes confuse bloodsucking flies and could inspire anti-bug device

Zebra stripes confuse bloodsucking flies and could inspire anti-bug device

To reach this conclusion, the researchers conducted an unusual experiment involving zebras and horses dressed in black and white striped coats. He found horseflies had no problem spotting either group, but they were awful at landing on the striped horses.

Both horses and zebras attracted the same number of insects, suggesting that the patterned stripes did not deter flies at a distance.

The team said the study showed stripes did not act as a long-range deterrent but had an effect when the flies got up close - possibly because of the flies' low-resolution vision.

Researchers made their discovery by spending more than 16 hours standing in fields and noting how horseflies interacted with nine horses and three zebras - including one somewhat bemusingly called Spot.

The evolution of the zebra's black & white coat has intrigued scientists for years. They're like horses, only they have a distinct pattern and colors that are unlike just about any other species.

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Zebra's stripes have given rise to a range of theories including camouflage, a way of confusing predators, a method of signalling other zebras, and a system of heat control. However, video analysis revealed differences in approach speed. A possible explanation is zebras may be highly prone to infectious diseases carried by African biting flies, although that hypothesis requires further study. Further, the scientists did not see a single tabanid probe a zebra's skin during 5.3 hours of direct observation, whereas the flies successfully did so 239 times on the uncovered horses during 11 hours of observing them.

As additional protection, zebras swish their tails nearly continuously to keep flies off, the study found.

More recent research has suggested that somehow the stripes reduce the chances of a zebra being bitten by flies.

Researchers think that zebras may have evolved this way because where they live. "This indicates that stripes may disrupt the flies' abilities to have a controlled landing". The striped animals nearly continuously swish their tails during the day and will stop feeding if they feel bothered.


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