Why you can't judge a zebra by its stripes

From BBC - January 22, 2018

You ca not judge a zebra by its stripes.

That's the finding of research that is shaking up the family tree of the African wild horse.

The common (plains) zebra lives on the grasslands of eastern and southern Africa, from southern Ethiopia to northern Namibia.

DNA evidence challenges the idea that there are six subspecies that you can tell apart based on variations in the animal's distinctive black and white stripes.

Dr Rasmus Heller of the University of Copenhagen says there's little evidence that differences in striping patterns "mean anything in a biological sense".

"At least we can say that the striping pattern does not contain much information about the history of the plains zebra, and how the different populations relate to each other," he said.

The study, based on analysing variations in the DNA of 59 plains zebra from across Africa, suggests that there are nine populations of the zebra living in different areas of the continent.

This knowledge is important when it comes to conservation, the scientists say.

"We now have a much clearer impression of which populations should be monitored, ie. are more vulnerable to loss of genetic diversity," said Dr Heller.

"This is particularly true for the two Ugandan populations, which have markedly lower genetic diversity and are relatively isolated from other populations."

While zebra are still found in large numbers across Africa, some populations - in Uganda and parts of Tanzania - are dwindling in number.

The northern-most population from northern Uganda is by far the most genetically distinct from the others, the research shows. To maintain high levels of genetic diversity in the species, there need to be corridors of suitable habitat for zebra to roam.

Extinct zebra


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