Wildlife Wednesdays: Zebra Cows? | weatherology°
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By: Meteorologist Megan Mulford
Updated: Oct 23rd 2019

Wildlife Wednesdays: Zebra Cows?

Zebras are beautiful creatures that have black and white stripes. For years, scientists have struggled to explain the purpose of their stripes. Some suggested that the stripes help camouflage themselves from predators. Other ideas include that it is to control body heat by generating small-scale breezes over the zebra's body when light and dark stripes heat up at different rates. Few scientists have tested these explanations and may argue that the stripes serve as a combination of purposes. One thing all scientists agree is that the zebra's stripes helps protect them from insect bites. 

Previous studies have shown that the black and white stripes appear to protect them from horsefly bites and other blood-sucking creatures, like mosquitoes and ticks. In the journal, Royal Society Open Science, it was concluded that striped body paint could reduce the number of horsefly bites a person receives up to 10 times! Other studies have shown that zebras tend to receive fewer bug bites than other similar creatures. Experiments have shown that horseflies tend to avoid black and white-striped surfaces due to the possibility that the stripes act as a "motion camouflage" that affects the insects' vision, confusing them. Similar to how some optical illusions confuse us!

A new study published in PLOS ONE, went further and wondered if the stripes could be applied to cows. Japanese researchers painted zebra-style stripes on one group of cows; black stripes on black cows, and no stripes on another group of cows as the control. The cows were then observed for fly-repelling behaviors. This includes head throws, ear beats, leg stamps, skin twitches, and tail flicks. The number of flies landing on the the cows were also counted. The results were shocking, as the zebra-painted cows had over 50% fewer biting flies on their bodies than those in the control group. There was no significant difference between the black-striped painted cows and the ones without any paint. They also saw a decrease in fly-repelling behavior of the zebra-striped cows as well, 20% less than the other group of cows. 

Scientists believe that if the results can be replicated on other animals, this would be a better way to combat biting flies than using harmful pesticides, which is bad for the environment. It would also be much cheaper and non-toxic to the animals. According to the study author, "Biting flies are serious livestock pests that cause economic losses in animal production." Using this method improves animal welfare, human health, and helping to resolve the problem of pesticide resistance in the environment. 

Zebra's stripes helps protect them from insect bites.
Horseflies are a nuisance to farm and wild animals.
Zebra Cow
Cows painted with zebra stripes had fewer horsefly bites than cows not painted with stripes. Source: Kojima; PLOS ONE.