Zebras are beautiful animals with a unique look that distinguishes them from other equine mammals. At first glimpse, most will recognize a zebra as soon as they see one. Their bodies, covered in short hair fur, have a distinctive pattern of black and white stripes. An individual zebra will have a distinctive pattern of striping, making each zebra unique from one another. The appearance of a zebra is similar to that of a horse because they belong to the same Genus, to which Donkeys also belong. The size of an adult zebra is typically 6.5 to 8.5 feet long. They can weigh up to 770 pounds, with mares being somewhat smaller than stallions.
Typically, zebras are “grazers” that consume a diet that consists mostly of grass and green leaves. If their preferred foods are scarce, they have been known to “browse”, consuming shrubs, twigs, and woody herbs. Having a diet that is low in nutritional value is not an issue for a zebra, because like many large grazers their gastrointestinal tracts are easily adapted to different situations, and can utilize energy from plant matter that is indigestible to some other mammals, including humans, and extract virtually every available vitamin and mineral therein.
Habitat and Range
There are three main species of zebra. The Plains zebra is common to the Eastern Highlands into Ethiopia and down into southeastern Africa. The Mountain zebra is more commonly found in southern and southwestern Africa. The third, the Grevy’s zebra, borders the territory to the north of the Plains zebra’s range, in Ethiopia and Kenya. Zebras can be found in many different habitats, including mountains, grasslands, coastal hills and savannahs alike. Because they are hunted for their hides, skins and meat, Mountain zebras and Grevy’s zebras are considered to be endangered species. Plains zebras have healthier population numbers, however they are still at risk due to the hazards of being hunted and continued loss of their habitat from the human development of their living spaces. Environmental changes also have an effect on zebra populations, as climate change and human activities are straining the water supply in their habitats. In times of drought, entire groups have been known to die from dehydration.
Plains and Mountain zebras are very social animals, and they live in mating-oriented groups called “harems”. These harems usually consist of one stallion (mature male), up to six mares (mature females) and their foals (zebra offspring). Bachelors will at times challenge breeding stallions for mating rights to a harem. Socially, Grevy’s zebras follow a different lifestyle pattern, as they do not form permanent bonds with each other. Groups of Grevy’s zebras usually only stay together for a few months, with foals staying with their mothers. Adult males will live alone. When hunted, a group of zebras will flee together in a group, which makes it hard for an attacker to single out one zebra. Although they are in the same genealogical family and genus as horses and donkeys, they have never been domesticated on a wide scale. In anticipation of predators, zebras sleep still up on their feet, ready to run as needed. Like donkeys and horses, zebras’ brays, whinnies, and barks serve as meaningful channels of communication.
At the age of three, mares will be ready to have their first foal. Male zebras take longer to mature sexually, and are usually ready to breed by age five or six. Stallions are able to determine if a female is ready to reproduce by the smell of her urine. Females signify their readiness by turning their backside to a stallion, spreading their hind legs, and lifting their tails to one side. Mating lasts only a few seconds, and is repeated regularly for two days. Mares are able to give birth to one foal every 12 months. Although foals eat grass quickly after birth, they do not become weaned completely at this time, and will also nurse throughout their first year of life. Foals are generally able to run within an hour of being delivered from their mothers’ wombs.