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Scientists dress horses up in coats to uncover why zebras have stripes

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By Shafi Musaddique, Reuters
Scientists dress horses up in coats to uncover why zebras have stripes

Ever wondered why zebras have stripes?

Scientists now may have the answer. According to researchers at the University of California, Davis, stripes confuse flies that try to land on zebras, thereby potentially reducing the number of diseases they catch.

Experiments conducted in America involved horses dressed up in different coloured coats. When horses were put in stripy jackets that mimicked a zebra's markings, fewer flies landed on them compared to when they wore jackets of just a single colour.

"We showed that horse flies approach zebras and uniformly coloured horses at similar rates but that they fail to land on zebras — or striped horse coats — because they fail to decelerate properly, and so fly past them or literally bump into them and bounce off," said behavioural ecologist Tim Caro of the University of California, Davis, lead author of the research published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Stripes vary among individual zebras and act like a human fingerprint.

Previously, scientists thought camouflage was the main reason as to why zebras have stripes.

Social functions such as recognising individuals and regulating temperatures were also thought to be possible advantages to having stripes.

"In addition to stripes that prevent controlled landings by horse flies, zebras are constantly swishing their tail and may run off if horse flies do land successfully, so they are also using behavioural means to prevent flies probing for blood," Caro said.