Zebra stripes confuse biting flies, causing them to abort their landings

Horse dressed in a striped coat in order to resemble a zebra. Credit Tim Caro  UC Davis

Horse dressed in a striped coat in order to resemble a zebra. Credit Tim Caro UC Davis

Horse dressed in a striped coat in order to resemble a zebra.

They found that although flies circled and touched horses and zebras at similar rates, they actually landed on zebras 25 per cent less often.

Researchers yesterday described experiments demonstrating that horse flies have a hard time landing on zebras while easily landing on uniformly coloured horses.

Study leader Professor Tim Caro, from the University of California at Davis, said: "This indicates that stripes may disrupt the flies" abilities to have a controlled landing'.

Further insights, gathered through video recordings of the zebras and a smaller group of horses, revealed flies failed to slow down steadily when zooming towards zebras, unlike they did for horses, and often simply careered into the animals.

Scientists are providing new evidence to answer the longstanding question about why zebras have stripes. Their stripe patterns vary among individuals, with no two alike. But what about a zebra's stripes? In one experiment, the researchers put cloth coats bearing striped patterns on horses and observed that fewer flies landed on them than when the same horses wore single-color coats.

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In 2014, researchers showed the ranges of the horsefly and tsetse fly species and the three most distinctively striped equid species (Equus burchelli, E. zebra, and E. grevyi) overlap to a remarkable degree.

The study took place on a United Kingdom horse farm in Somerset that keeps both domestic horses and zebras.

University of Bristol biologist and study co-author Martin How said stripes may dazzle flies somehow once the insects venture close enough to see them with their low-resolution eyes.

Flies approach zebras animal with the intention of landing and drinking the zebra's blood. The striped animals nearly continuously swish their tails during the day and will stop feeding if they feel bothered. 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.

If the flies are particularly persistent, they will stop feeding or attempt to flee from them.

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