Zebras are several species of African equids (horse family) united by their distinctive black and white striped coats. Their stripes come in different patterns, unique to each individual. They are generally social animals that live in small harems to large herds. Unlike their closest relatives the horses and donkeys, zebras have never been truly domesticated. Attempts have been made to train zebras for riding, since they have better resistance than horses to African diseases. Most of these attempts failed, though, due to the zebra’s more unpredictable nature and tendency to panic under stress. For this reason, zebra-mules or zebroids (crosses between any species of zebra and a horse, pony, donkey or ass) are preferred over purebred zebras.

There are three species of zebras: the plains zebra, the Grévy’s zebra and the mountain zebra. The plains zebra and the mountain zebra belong to the subgenus Hippotigris, but Grévy’s zebra is the sole species of subgenus Dolichohippus. The latter resembles an ass, to which it is closely related, while the former two are more horse-like. All three belong to the genus Equus, along with other living equids.

The unique stripes of zebras make them one of the animals most familiar to people. They occur in a variety of habitats, such as grasslands, savannas, woodlands, thorny scrublands, mountains, and coastal hills. However, various anthropogenic factors have had a severe impact on zebra populations, in particular hunting for skins and habitat destruction. Grévy’s zebra and the mountain zebra are endangered. While plains zebras are much more plentiful, one subspecies, the quagga, became extinct in the late 19th century – though there is currently a plan, called the Quagga Project, that aims to breed zebras that are phenotypically similar to the quagga in a process called breeding back.

No animal has a more distinctive coat than the zebra. Each animal’s stripes are as unique as fingerprints—no two are exactly alike—although each of the three species has its own general pattern.

Zebra Stripes: Why do zebras have stripes at all? Scientists aren’t sure, but many theories center on their utility as some form of camouflage. The patterns may make it difficult for predators to identify a single animal from a running herd and distort distance at dawn and dusk. Or they may dissuade insects that recognize only large areas of single-colored fur or act as a kind of natural sunscreen. Because of their uniqueness, stripes may also help zebras recognize one another.

Population and Herd Behavior: Zebras are social animals that spend time in herds. They graze together, primarily on grass, and even groom one another.

Plains (Burchell’s) zebras are the most common species. They live in small family groups consisting of a male (stallion), several females, and their young. These units may combine with others to form awe-inspiring herds thousands of head strong, but family members will remain close within the herd.

Zebras must be constantly wary of lions and hyenas. A herd has many eyes alert to danger. If an animal is attacked, its family will come to its defense, circling the wounded zebra and attempting to drive off predators.

Gait: Zebras have four gaits: walk, trot, canter and gallop. They are generally slower than horses, but their great stamina helps them outrun predators. When chased, a zebra will zig-zag from side to side, making it more difficult for the predator to attack. When cornered, the zebra will rear up and kick or bite its attacker.

Senses: Zebras have excellent eyesight. It is believed that they can see in color. Like most ungulates, the zebra’s eyes are on the sides of its head, giving it a wide field of view. Zebras also have night vision, although not as advanced as that of most of their predators.

Zebras have excellent hearing and have larger, rounder ears than horses; like other ungulates, zebras can turn their ears in almost any direction. In addition to superb eyesight and hearing, zebras also have acute senses of smell and taste.

Diseases: Being an equid, zebras are subject to many of the same common infections and diseases of the domestic horse.

Conservation: Modern man has had great impact on the zebra population. Zebras were, and still are, hunted for their skins, and for meat. They also compete with livestock for forage and are sometimes culled.

The Cape mountain zebra was hunted to near extinction, with less than 100 individuals by the 1930s. The population has since increased to about 700 due to conservation efforts. Both mountain zebra subspecies are currently protected in national parks, but are still endangered.

The Grévy’s zebra is also endangered. Hunting and competition from livestock have greatly decreased their population. Because of the population’s small size, environmental hazards, such as drought, are capable of affecting the entire species. Plains zebras are much more numerous and have a healthy population. Nevertheless, they too have been reduced by hunting and loss of habitat to farming. One subspecies, the quagga, is now extinct.