Hugh Pickens DOT Com (2995471) writes "There have been many explanations for the zebra's impressive stripes including Darwin who thought that the stripes help males and females make sensible choices about whom they mate with. Now Henry Nicholls reports at The Guardian that Tim Caro at the University of California, Davis, has taken a completely original approach, stepping back from one species of zebra and attempting to account for the differences in patterning across different species and subspecies of zebras, horses and asses to see if there is anything about the habitat or ecology of these different equids that hints at the function of stripes. To answer that question, Caro and his colleagues created a detailed map charting the ranges of striped vs. non-striped species and subspecies. Then they worked on a map for the bloodsuckers that targeted those species — specifically, abanid biting flies (horse flies) and tsetse flies.
'I was amazed by our results,' says Caro. 'Again and again, there was greater striping on areas of the body in those parts of the world where there was more annoyance from biting flies.' Where there are tsetse flies, for instance, the equids tend to come in stripes. Where there aren't, they don't. Biologists who buy into the bug-repellent hypothesis say that, all other things being equal, striped animals would have an evolutionary advantage because they wouldn't suffer from the loss of blood, reduced weight gain and lowered milk production that's associated with bug bites. Tsetse flies are also associated with the transmission of diseases. 'There are a lot of them, such as sleeping sickness, equine anemia and equine influenza,' Caro says. Why would zebras evolve to have stripes whereas other hooved mammals did not? The study found that, unlike other African hooved mammals living in the same areas as zebras, zebra hair is shorter than the mouthpart length of biting flies, so zebras may be particularly susceptible to annoyance by biting flies. 'It's clear that the flies can get through that hair and get to the skin.'"