Spotted! A rare polka-dotted zebra foal

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Have you ever heard of a zebra without stripes? Last month Masai guide and photographer, Anthony Tira, was the first to spot a unique looking zebra foal at Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. The one- week old zebra had a dark coat with white polka dots and is the first of its kind in the reserve.

Photos: Frank Liu

At first, Anthony was confused. He thought the foal was a different species but after carefully studying it he recognized he was looking at a baby zebra with a pigmentation disorder. This rare condition is called pseudomelanism, where animals display some sort of abnormality in their striped pattern. The reserve has named the zebra foal “Tira” after his Masai guide

Is a zebra white with black stripes or black with white stripes?

Correct! Wrong!

Black with white stripes. If you shaved a zebra, you would find a black-skinned animal underneath. The stripes pattern are created by the hair or fur on the animal. They have both black and white hair/fur.

According to an article in the Smithsonian magazine, zebras are dark-skinned animals, and their stripes rise from specialized skin cells called melanocytes, which transfer melanin into some of their hairs; the hairs that have melanin appear black, and those that do not appear white. But rarely, something goes amiss and the melanin does not manifest as stripes.

Earlier this year a “blonde” zebra was spotted at Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. This zebra has a rare condition where reduced melanin causes the zebra’s stripes to appear a pale, golden color.

Unfortunately, unusually striped zebras are more likely to have a shorter lifespan. Scientists have debated the purpose of zebra stripes. Some believe that zebras have stripes for camouflage and temperature control but now experiments have shown that the black-and-white pattern function as a fly repellant.

In Africa, flies carry diseases that can be life-threatening for zebras. The zebras’ bedazzling stripes seem to deter flies, making it difficult for them to land on their coats. Thus without the black and white coat pattern, Tira may be susceptible to fatal bites or may just stand out from a herd of stripes in the eyes of hungry predators.

So far Tira is doing well. The rangers at the Masai Mara national reserve are keeping a close eye on Tira and they report he is still staying close to his mother at all times.

 

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