Researchers have found that horseflies get very confused around stripes, and rather than landing carefully on a zebra's flank they career straight into it.
To confirm that it was indeed coat pattern that was thwarting the flies' precision, the researchers kitted some of the horses out in three cloth jackets: one white, one black and one zebra-striped. UC Davis Professor Tim Caro led a series of unique experiments for this study to better understand how stripes manipulate the behavior of biting flies as they attempt to come in for a landing on a zebra.
Well, it appears stripes make bad landing strips, bamboozling the fierce blood-sucking flies that try to feast on zebras and carry deadly diseases.
For the study, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, researchers camouflaged horses in "zebra costumes".
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"From distances of greater than two metres or so, a zebra would just look like a grey horse - they won't be able to see the stripes at all", said How. However, video analysis revealed differences in approach speed. But the stylish zebra-striped attire did not stop flies from landing on the horses' unadorned heads. Some thought stripes must help zebras blend into the grasses to avoid lions, which is the worst explanation I've ever heard.
You might remember being told in school that zebras have stripes because it makes it harder for predators to pick out one animal to chase, or that the patterns are unique to each animal and act like an identification for others in the group.
"Most biologists involved with research on mammal coloration accept that this is the reason that zebras have stripes". While horses are more low-key about the presence of flies, merely twitching and occasionally swishing their tails to ward off the insects, zebras are far less tolerant.
It's warding off these biting insects that the stripes are for according to the scientists. The striped animals nearly continuously swish their tails during the day and will stop feeding if they feel bothered.