The Plains Zebra IUCN Classification and Physical Characteristics
The Plains Zebras also referred to as Burchell’s Zebra or common Zebra and scientifically known as Equus quagga belong to the Equus species (IUCN, 2012). Given that the plains zebra exhibits a large degree of diversity, the species has been divided into six sub species based on differences in features such as presence of a mane, body patterning, body size and extent of stripes coverage (IUCN, 2013). These animals possess horse-like features, are thick bodied with pretty short legs and normally mid-sized although variation in size may occur depending on the animals’ condition. Typically, the males weigh approximately 10% more than females.
The plains zebras are boldly striped in black and white like other zebra species with dark muzzles. In addition, they have stripes that run vertically on the front part of the body that incline towards the horizontal stripes on the hindquarters of the body. It has been documented that the northern populations of the plains zebra are characterized by narrower and more distinct stripes whilst the southern populations have diverse but lesser amounts of stripes on the underparts, legs and the hindquarters. The main difference between the southern and northern populations lies on the fact that the former have faint brown stripes that run between the black and white stripes that are poorly expressed or totally lack in the former. Interestingly, each individual is physically unique given that no two zebras look exactly alike (Kingdon, 2000).
The normal height of adult plain zebras lies between 4-4.75 ft at the shoulders with an average weight of 204.12 to 272.2 kgs. The mane of plain zebras is very captivating given that it begins on the forehead right between the eye level and ears and stretches to the end of the neck. Notably, the eyes of these zebras are on the sides of the head that enables them to see predators from various directions (Animal Spot Africa, 2008). The gestation period of female plains zebra is one year (Animal Spot Africa, 2008) after which they give birth to a foal with a natal coat that is white and brown in color (Kingdon, 2000).
The most important adaptation of the plains zebra is its stripes. These stripes allow the plains zebra to camouflage in tall grasses, bushes and trees in order to avoid predation (Apps, 2006). There are other theories that state that the stripes affect the predators’ judgement on the zebra’s size, direction of movement, distance and make it difficult for a predator to single out a zebra during a chase (Miller & Spoolman, 2010). In addition, some theories state that the stripes are involved in temperature regulation (Animal Spot Africa, 2008). Some theories have taken a social dimension stating that the stripes enable the zebras to recognize each other and group together during a chase (Apps, 2006) in addition to serving as visual clues for grooming (Prothero, 2003). Scientists have proved that the stripes also polarize light thus discouraging biting flies (Adam, 2012), a characteristic that is unique to zebras.
Habitat and Diet
The plains zebra are widely distributed in African countries ranging from South Sudan to the Eastern part of Africa traversing Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania to the southern parts of Africa in countries such as Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi and other southern African countries (Miller & Spoolman, 2010). However, they are now extinct in Lesotho and Burundi where they formerly existed and possibly Angola.
These animals can be found in both tropical and temperate climates and mostly inhabit the savannah woodlands and treeless grasslands but normally do not occupy dense rainforests, wetlands and deserts (Miller & Spoolman, 2010). In Kenya, these animals are known to also survive 4,300m above sea level around Mt. Kenya.
The plains zebra mainly depend on rainfall for food and water, and given the fact that they are highly water-dependent, they mostly live within 15-19 miles of a water source (Hack, 2002) and are known to travel for long distances in search of water and food. The plains zebras are typically grazers and, as such, their diet consists of a variety of long and short grasses, leaves, shoots and occasionally other vegetation but mostly prefer young and fresh growth. It is presumed that their diet constitutes of 2% grass, 5% herbs and 92% grass. Due to that, they consume a vast variety of forage; they tend to be the first animal species to venture into well vegetated areas. The digestive system of plains zebras is adapted to less selective foraging given that they have a simple stomach and use hind gut fermentation to assimilate and digest large amounts of food (Moehlman, 2003)
Environmental and Ecological Significance of the Plains Zebra
The plains zebra are ecologically significant because, in as much as they are predated upon by a wide variety of animals such as lions, crocodiles, hyenas, cheetahs, leopards amongst others; they provide food for these predators which will otherwise get extinct due to starvation. Secondly, the fact that these animals are grazers, they naturally clear excessive vegetation which tend to be breeding grounds for various disease vectors such as mosquitoes, ticks, sandflies amongst others. Due to the clearance, the incidence of various diseases that affect wildlife, livestock and humans greatly reduce.
Given that the plains zebra have an efficient hindgut digestive system; they are capable of surviving on coarse vegetation which is inadequate in fulfilling the energy requirements of other ungulates. Due to this, these animals play a vital ecological role by removing tougher growths allowing the other ungulates to access the younger and tender growths (Hack, 2002). Given that the plains zebra is usually the first ungulate to traverse new vegetative areas, they pave way for other ungulates such as gazelles and wildebeests thus, in one way or another; they contribute towards survival of the other animals.
Environmental Effects of Human Interference on the Plains Zebra
The Plains zebra is classified as ‘Least Concern’ (LC) on the IUCN redlist (IUCN, 2013). Despite this status, the species is threatened by habitat loss due to extensive agriculture into the wild, hunting, poaching and competition for water and vegetation from livestock. Furthermore, the massive industrialization has resulted into global warming and ecological destruction that negatively selects the plains zebra. If these are not checked, the plains zebra might get extinct. However, the creation of protected conservation areas such as the Serengeti National Park in Kenya and the Kruger National Park in South Africa has greatly contributed to the conservation of the Plains zebra in addition to contributing to economic growth of these countries through tourism.
Introduction of alternative livelihoods to locals living around protected areas is also vital in reducing incidences of hunting, poaching and competition from livestock. This is also important in ensuring cohesion within and across borders, economic growth and reduction in human-wildlife conflicts.
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