New theory of why zebras have stripes finally revealed.
It is a mystery that has sparked debate among the world’s greatest experts of the natural world going back generations.
But now an 85-year-old amateur naturalist and her zoologist husband believe they have finally solved the age old riddle of why zebras have stripes.
Former biology technician Alison Cobb and husband Dr Stephen Cobb say the stripes are used to control body temperature – and they have revealed for the first time exactly how it happens.
They have published their findings in the Journal of Natural History, the scientific journal of the Natural History Museum in London, after spending many years studying zebras in sub-Saharan Africa.
Mrs Cobb, lead author of the report, said: “Ever since I read ‘How the Leopard Got His Spots’ in Kipling’s Just So Stories at bedtime when I was about four, I have wondered what zebra stripes are for.
”In the many years we spent living in Africa, we were always struck by how much time zebras spent grazing in the blazing heat of the day and felt the stripes might be helping them to control their temperature in some way.“
The couple argue that zebras use sweat to cool down and small convection currents between their stripes aid evaporation.
They also say the previously unrecorded ability of zebras to erect their black stripes also aids heat loss – explaining why their unique pattern helps them manage their body temperature on Africa’s extreme heat.
There is evidence from other recent studies that backs up the idea that heat control may be key to why zebras have their striking coats.
But the study is the first-time zebras have been assessed in their natural habitat to investigate the role of stripes in temperature control.
The couple collected data from two live zebras, a stallion and a mare, together with a zebra hide draped over a clothes-horse in Kenya.
They say zebras can raise their black hairs during the heat of the day, which helps with the transfer of heat from the skin.
Mrs Cobb said: ”The solution to the zebra’s heat-balance challenge is cleverer, more complex and beautiful than we’d imagined. Of course, there is much more work to be done to gather evidence and fully understand how the stripes help zebras control temperature, but I am 85 now, so that’s for others to do.“