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Plains Zebra (Equus quagga) Fact Sheet: Physical Characteristics

Physical Characteristics

Attribute Male Female
Weight 220-373 kg (480-882 lb) 273-387 kg (602-853 lb)
Head and Body Length 2365-2675 mm (7.8-8.8 ft) 2250-2600 mm (7.4-8.5 ft)
Tail Length 430-515 mm (1.4-1.7 ft) 430-490 mm (1.4-1.6 ft)
Shoulder Height 1120-1470 mm (3.7-4.8 ft) 1065-1410 mm (3.5-4.6 ft)

General Appearance

Body shape

  • Muscular, horse-like animal
    • Neck relatively short neck (Klingel 2013)
  • Ears pointed (Klingel 2013)
    • Relatively short and narrow (Grubb 1981)
    • Lack fringe of long hairs (Grubb 1981)
  • Legs sturdy (from Groves 2013 unless otherwise noted)
    • "Knee" actually the wrist
    • Single toe at terminus of each limb
      • 3rd (middle) digit supports body weight on each
      • Splint bones (small sliver-like bones), paired on either side of the 'knee'
        • Remnants of other digits not externally visible
    • Hooves enclose and protect the toe (Budras et al. 2003)
      • Modified skin, grows continually; adaptation against repetitive wear (Klingel 2013)
    • Small chestnuts (roughened skin patches) on inner forelegs (Grubb 1981)

Pelage (from Klingel 2013 unless otherwise noted)

  • Dense, black and white hair
    • Skin tone uniform; dark grey to black (I. Stalis DVM, Diplomate, ACVP; personal communication)
  • Striped color pattern; well defined with crisp edges
    • Black stripes on a white, creamy, or buff colored background (click here for a summary of opinions on whether stripes are black or white)
      • Width and arrangement of stripes are variable among subspecies (see Subspecies Characterisitics, below)
      • May or may not extend onto the rump, legs, or belly
    • Pattern more prominent in northern populations
      • Primarily in the northern equatorial region of the range
      • Shadow stripes (brownish stripes between larger, darker ones) thin or absent in the north
      • Ground color darker in the south
    • Unique pattern on each individual (Grubb 1981)
      • Individuals recognizable by their distinctive pattern (Briand Petersen 1972)
  • Mane and forelock
    • Brush-like (Estes 1999; Grubb 1981)
    • Striped pattern of body extends into erect hairs of the mane
    • Often reduced in northern individuals; thin or absent

Sexual Dimorphism

Sexes similar

  • Stallions (adult males)
    • Slightly larger than mares (adult females) (Klingel 2013)
    • Canine teeth move developed in males (Groves 2013)

Other Characteristics

Adaptations

  • Stripes (from Caro et al. 2014; Klingel 2013 unless otherwise noted)
    • Hypotheses to explain functional significance of black and white pattern
      • Crypsis, a visually disruptive pattern; 2 possible adaptive scenarios
        • Background matching, provides camouflage within a woodland habitat
        • Disruptive coloration, obscures the body on open plains or within large herds
      • Thermo-regulation
        • Increases body cooling in regions of extreme heat
      • Intraspecific social communication
        • Aids in recognition of individuals and group members
      • Ectoparasite avoidance
        • Obscures the body against biting flies
        • Biting flies selectively target un-striped surfaces (those with lower levels of light polarization) (Egri et al. 2012)
        • Positive relationship between prevalence of biting flies in a region and the degree of striping among equid species (Caro et al. 2014)
        • Stripes predicted to be more prevalent in short-haired species living in regions with many active biting flies (Caro et al. 2014)
  • Teeth (from Groves 1974 unless otherwise noted)
    • Cheek teeth specialized to withstand wear
      • Enamel of cheek teeth folded into loops, forming a hard, resistant grinding surface
      • Minces grass into small pieces
    • Incisors specialized to crop grass stems and as weapons for defense (Estes 1999; Groves 1974)
      • Strong, elongated upper and lower incisors
  • Skull (Groves 1974)
    • Elongated to enable visual awareness of surroundings while grazing
  • Nose (Groves 1974)
    • Nostrils large and mobile
    • Close tight to prevent inhaling dust
  • Ears and lips (from Groves 1974 unless otherwise noted)
    • Highly mobile
    • Varied facial expressions important in communication

Other Physical Characteristics

  •  Comparative features among zebras (from Klingel 2013 unless otherwise noted)
    • Distinctions among zebra species
      • Grevy's zebra (Equus grevyi) - largest species; narrow, tightly packed stripes, long legs and ovoid ears
      • Mountain zebra (Equus zebra) - dewlap on neck, rounded ears, and hindquarter stripes broader than in other species
    • Subspecies Characteristics
      Common Name
      Scientific Name
      Legs
      Notable Characteristics
       
      Grant's zebra E. q. boehmi fully striped smallest subspecies
      Chapman's zebra E. q. chapmani fully striped largest subspecies
      Half-maned zebra E. q. borensis fully striped mane of adult male reduced or absent
      Crawshay's zebra E. q. crawshayi fully striped numerous, narrow stripes
      Zululand zebra E. q. burchellii partially striped* lateral body stripes un-joined on belly
      Quagga (extinct) E. q. quagga lack stripes background color dark cream or brown
      * Legs of some lack stripes.
  • 22 pairs of chromosomes (2n=44) (Klingel 2013)

Zebras Have Unique Stripe Patterns

a Plains Zebra

Stripes on plains zebras are regionally variable. Patterns are more prominent in northern populations which lack or have minimal shadow striping. All zebras have a unique arrangement of stripes which can be used to identify individuals.

Image credit: © S Yeliseev from Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Page Citations

Briand Petersen (1972)
Budras et al. (2003)
Caro et al. (2014)
Egri et al. (2012)
Estes (1999)
Groves (1974)
Groves (2013)
Grubb (1981)
Klingel (2013)

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