Which migratory creature is native to 15 countries, has the longest mammal migration known, and has a unique coat pattern across individuals?
Z is for Zebra
As you may have already guessed, zebras are members of the horse (Equidae) family. Within their genus, Equus, there are three species: the Mountain Zebra (Equus zebra), the Plains Zebra (Equus quagga), and the Grevy’s Zebra (Equus grevyi). These zebras are pretty hefty in size, weighing 550 to 700 pounds and reaching about 4.5 feet in height. Each individual has its own unique coat pattern, and further, each species has certain traits that show up in their coat patterns. However, no matter the species, all zebras have a dorsal stripe that goes down their spine.
These vibrant creatures are native to 15 countries in Africa, and they dwell in two main ecosystems: scrubby woodlands and semi-arid grasslands, like the Serengeti. Zebras are herbivorous, which means that they primarily feed on a variety of grasses, tree saplings, and sticks. As groups they travel frequently (even crossing rivers!) and can migrate up to 1800 miles in search of food.
Good Communication Makes a Great Life
Zebras, being the highly social creatures that they are, have a complex communication system. To begin with, our striped friends convey feelings and observations through facial expressions, such as pulling back their ears when danger is near. Additionally, vocal signals from calls to snorts create a combination of messages, such as conveying happiness or agitation. Zebras have outstanding hearing and eyesight abilities, which aids them in being able to communicate with visual and auditory clues.
A Day in the Life of a Zebra
Zebras have a well-organized family structure to match their social tendencies. Throughout most of the year, family groups called “harems” band together, consisting of an alpha male (or, “stallion”), several females, and their young. The stallion protects the group, but the alpha female determines their movements and migration routes based on ecological signs of food availability. Zebras travel often, which results in a need to rest. One can certainly find zebras taking a quick nap while standing at various periods during the day.
“Hold on!” you might be asking. “What if a predator attacks while the zebras are sleeping?” Well, the zebras have already thought through that question. Whenever the group is sleeping, whether it be day or night, there is always a group member standing guard and ready to alert the group awake when danger is near. If a predator, such as a lion, cheetah, hyena, or leopard attacks, the stallion will stay behind to fight while the females and their young run to safety.
Females, also known as mares, typically reproduce one foal per gestation period, which lasts about 13 months. Foals, which weigh about 55-88 pounds at birth, have been known to begin walking as soon as 20 minutes after entering the world. (Quite impressive compared to the 8-18 months that it takes humans to learn to walk!) Once they’re ready, a mare will teach her young to imprint on her by walking away and having the foal try to identify her from a distance. Eventually, the foal will be able to reach speeds of up to 35 miles per hour in adulthood!
When migration season begins in late November to early December, the harems will join together into a large mass, resulting in a stunning passage, just like this one:
Striped with admiration,
Abby Abrahamson is a writer, activist, and educator with a passion for community-led biodiversity and climate solutions. As a graduate of sociology and environmental studies, she appreciates the intersectionality of our challenges of climate justice, conservation, and regeneration. Now a Teacher Naturalist with Mass Audobon, Abby formerly worked with Bio4Climate on communications, college outreach, and community engagement. She has also been involved in Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots, an organization that helps empower young people to work on environmental, conservation, and humanitarian issues.