The zebra is an amazing, striped animal with characteristic black and white stripes. Similar to fingerprints in humans, every zebra has a unique stripe pattern―no two zebras have similar stripes. Researchers use these different stripe patterns for identification purposes, and it is said that the zebras too do the same. They graze and move in groups, hence it becomes difficult for their predators to identify a target, because all they can see is a group of moving stripes! Hence, stripes indirectly protect them. Zebras belong to the family Equidae (single-hoofed animals), though two of the tree species belong to the Hippotigris subgenus, and one belongs to the Dolichohippus subgenus. Like horses, these too are well-adapted to run fast on hard grounds (40 mph). Other adaptations include excellent eyesight (fair night vision too) and a good digestive system to digest the tough grass they eat.
At present, there are three living species; namely, plain zebra (the most common one), Grévy's zebra (Equus grevyi), and Mountain zebra (Equus zebra). They are further classified into eight subspecies. All species are herbivores, feeding on grass and other plants. An adult usually measures about 1.5 m (5 ft) at shoulder height. The largest living species, the 'Grévy's zebra', can weigh up to 450 kg (990 lb). They have a gestation period of a year. Their life span is about 12 years in the wild. Now that we know some basic information, let's take a deeper look at their habitats.
Zebra Habitat: A Brief Overview
These animals prefer to live in open grasslands and woodlands where there is sufficient vegetation. They are highly social animals, who often share their territory with other grazers. They tend to move to different areas in their habitat based on the availability of food, water, and presence of predators (safety). They even graze in different areas during the day and night so as to avoid their worst predator, the lion. During the rainy season, they migrate in large herds, passing through different areas such as savannas and grasslands. Since water requirement of each species vary, the range of each species is different.
This species requires a steady water supply so they inhabit areas near water sources, not further than 7 - 8 miles (12 km). Among the three species, the plain zebra is the most widely distributed species. Its range spreads from Sudan to Zimbabwe in East Africa to Angola in the west. It prefers open areas with not much vegetation. While migrating, it can also be seen on the Serengeti plains.
This species is exclusive to certain parts of northern Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia (rare). Since it requires less water in comparison to the other species, it can survive drought-like conditions. Hence, it prefers semiarid conditions where it feeds on legumes, browse, and grass. This species is known to survive without water for up to 5 days. During the dry season, it might move to different areas, or use its pointed hooves for digging waterholes. It is a rare species because it was poached for its skin, and it has to compete with the livestock in the area for water and food sources.
The mountain zebra is found at extremely high altitudes, elevation of about 4,000 meters above the mean sea level. Cape mountain zebras are known to inhabit the hills of southwestern Africa, while the Hartmann's mountain zebras are found in Namibia and Angola. Their pointed and hard hooves help them to climb and descend mountain slopes. Similar to Grévy's zebra, they can survive in drought-like conditions. They prefer higher altitudes because of their preferred variety of grass that grows in these regions.
The zebra population is gradually decreasing because of poaching and habitat loss due to human encroachment. According to the IUCN Red Data, both the Grévy's zebra and Mountain zebra species are listed as endangered. Efforts are being taken for their conservation.