Zebras are African equids (horse family) best known for their distinctive black and white stripes. Their stripes come in different patterns unique to each individual.
They are generally social animals that live in small harems to large herds.Unlike their closest relatives, horses and asses, zebras have never been truly domesticated.
There are three species of zebras: the plains zebra, the Grévy’s zebra and the mountain zebra. The plains zebra and the mountain zebra belong to the subgenus Hippotigris, but Grevy’s zebra is the sole species of subgenus Dolichohippus.
The latter resembles an ass, to which it is closely related, while the former two are more horse-like. All three belong to the genus Equus, along with other living equids.
The unique stripes of zebras make these among the animals most familiar to people. They occur in a variety of habitats, such as grasslands, savannas, woodlands, thorny scrublands, mountains, and coastal hills.
However, various anthropogenic factors have had a severe impact on zebra populations, in particular hunting for skins and habitat destruction. Grevy’s zebra and the mountain zebra are endangered.
While plains zebras are much more plentiful, one subspecies, the quagga, went extinct in the late 19th century, though they have now been rebred from zebra DNA.
Zebra in English dates back to c.1600, from Italian Zebra, perhaps from Portuguese, which in turn is said to be Congolese (as stated in the Oxford English Dictionary).
The Encarta Dictionary says its ultimate origin is uncertain, but perhaps it may come from Latin Equiferus meaning “Wild horse,” from equus “horse” and ferus “wild, untamed”
It was previously believed that zebras were white animals with black stripes, since some zebras have white underbellies.
Embryological evidence, however, shows that the animal’s background color is black and the white stripes and bellies are additions.
The stripes are typically vertical on the head, neck, forequarters, and main body, with horizontal stripes at the rear and on the legs of the animal. The “zebra crossing” is named after the zebra’s black and white stripes.
Like horses, zebras walk, trot, canter and gallop. They are generally slower than horses, but their great stamina helps them outpace predators. When chased, a zebra will zig-zag from side to side, making it more difficult for the predator. When cornered, the zebra will rear up and kick or bite its attacker.
Zebras have excellent eyesight. It is believed that they can see in color. Like most ungulates, the zebra has its eyes on the sides of its head, giving it a wide field of view. Zebras also have night vision, although not as advanced as that of most of their predators.
Zebras have excellent hearing, and tend to have larger, rounder ears than horses. Like horses and other ungulates, zebra can turn their ears in almost any direction. In addition to eyesight and hearing, zebras have an acute sense of smell and taste.
Zebras feed almost entirely on grasses, but may occasionally eat shrubs, herbs, twigs, leaves and bark. Their digestive systems allow them to subsist on diets of lower nutritional quality than that necessary for other herbivores.