A zebra foal in Kenya is attracting attention worldwide with its unique appearance. Instead of striking black-and-white stripes, this one boasts a dark coat covered with white dots.
Wildlife photographer Frank Liu was searching for rhinos recently in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve when he spotted the rare zebra.
“At first glance he looked like a different species altogether,” Liu said.
Antony Tira, the Maasai tour guide who first saw the unusual foal, named him Tira. Like Liu, he was baffled when he first saw the uniquely patterned zebra.
“At first I thought it was a zebra that had been captured and painted or marked for purposes of migration,” he told Daily Nation, a Kenyan newspaper. “I was confused when I first saw it.”
Like fingerprints, zebra stripes are unique for each creature. Tira’s unusual pigmentation could be the first recorded observation in the Masai Mara, according to Liu. Spotted foals have also been seen in Okavanga Delta in Botswana.
Tira and other foals with odd colorations have a condition called pseudomelanism, “a rare genetic mutation in which animals display some sort of abnormality in their stripe pattern,” according to Rey Larison, a biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Other zebras also have other unique color variations, like the extraordinary “blond” zebra with partial albinism photographed in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park earlier this year.
Melanocytes produce melanin, a pigment that determines the hair and skin cell color in mammals. Greg Barsh, a geneticist at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, briefly explained this process to National Geographic via email.
“There are a variety of mutations that can disturb the process of melanin synthesis, and in all of those disorders, the melanocytes are believed to be normally distributed, but the melanin they make is abnormal,” he wrote.
Melanocytes are uniformly distributed throughout a zebra’s skin so that a shaved zebra would be all black. But in the case of pseudomelanistic zebras, Barsh believes they have melanocytes, but the melanin itself doesn’t manifest correctly as stripes, for some undetermined reason.
Although fascinating, this unique quality may come with grim consequences related to survival.
“Research on other species has shown that, while it is harder for a predator to target an individual in a group, it is easier if an individual is different,” Larison noted.
Scientists have long debated the purpose of zebra stripes, with social signaling, camouflage, and temperature control offered as viable theories. However, recent research has suggested that these black-and-white stripes actually evolved to protect the zebras from biting flies.
In Africa, flies carry several diseases fatal to zebras, and their thin coats make them easily susceptible to fly bites. Recent field experiments have shown that flies don’t like landing on striped surfaces, so the risk of normally striped zebras getting diseases from these insects is very low.
Unfortunately for Tira, she won’t be too successful at repelling these flies because of her spotted coat.
But if Tira can survive these hurdles and make it to adulthood, she will probably be fine. Zebras also appear to be accepting of difference, so the foal won’t have any trouble fitting into a herd.
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