A dazzle of zebra

Our tour guide has been testing our knowledge of words for groups of animals:  a bellow of Cape buffalo, a rank of impala, a tower of giraffes, a dazzle of zebra.  Where these names come from is a mystery, but in the case of zebras, it seems to be an accurate term for their strategy of hiding in plain sight.

Zebra and waterbuck at Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

Other antelope species often forage with zebras, depending on their keen eyesight and hearing to alert them of danger.

Basically, when viewing groups of striped patterns, it becomes difficult to separate individuals, and thus a potential predator is “dazzled” about where the body of its prey actually is.

Zebra and waterbuck at Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

The head of one zebra is clearly obvious, but notice the confusion of mixed stripping patterns in the background.

The British Navy made use of this strategy with dazzle camouflage of their ship sails during world war 1, creating striped patterns of color that interrupted each other so that it was difficult to target specific ships.

Striped sails on British ships in WW1 (dazzle camouflage)

Striped sails on British ships in WW1 (dazzle camouflage — from Wikipedia)

Zebra stripe pattern varies from individual to individual, so they likely recognize each other, but it would take computer analysis for us to differentiate.  Nevertheless, a mare separates from the rest of the herd for about a week after she foals so that her youngster can learn her stripe pattern and find her easily.

Zebra mare and her foal at Hwange national park, Zimbabwe

Zebra mare and her foal at Hwange national park, Zimbabwe

Another potential advantage of the striped fur coat may be reduced attractiveness to the flies that commonly infest and annoy most hoofed animals.  The thinner the stripes, the less likely the flies are to land and begin feeding, according to some researchers.

Zebra herd with cattle egrets aboard

Tails are wonderful for swishing away flies, but cattle egrets on board consume whatever escapes the tail swish.

Zebras are numerous in the Okavango delta and Hwange national park in Zimbabwe, but so far are rare in Chobe park in Botswana, where we are currently searching for leopards before we head back to the U.S.

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