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Grevy's Zebra (Equus grevyi) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History & Nomenclature

Common names

  • Grevy's zebra
    • Named after President Jules Grevy of the Third Republic of France who received this zebra as a gift in 1882
  • Local common names
    • Loiborkurum ("white-rumped") in Samburu
    • Kangani in Swahili
  • Etymology of zebra
    • The Abyssinian name for the animal (Brown 1956)
    • Italian, from Old Portuguese zevro, or "wild ass"

Scientific name

  • Etymology
    • Genus Equus from Latin equinus meaning "horse" (Gove 1993)
  • Taxonomic history
    • In 1916 Lydekker placed E. grevyi alone in a separate subgenus
    • Molecular and morphological studies now show close affinity to other zebras, especially to the Mountain Zebra (Groves & Bell 2004)
    • 2 proposed subspecies
      • Povisionally suggested for by Groves & Ryder (2000)
        • Additional study suggests variation in Grevy's populations is not enough for subspecies designation (Groves & Bell 2004)

Evolutionary History

Family Equidae (from Duncan and Groves 2013; Groves 2013 unless otherwise noted)

  • Evolutionary origin traced to North America
    • Earliest members date to c. 54 million years ago (mya)
      • Closely related to tapirs (Family Tapiridae) and rhinoceroses (Rhinocerotidae)
      • Small: < 30 cm (less than 1 ft) tall
      • 3-4 toes per foot
      • Skull short
      • Fossil record extensive
        • Documents successive loss of side toes, an increase in the length of legs and feet, and enlargement of the skull
  • Diversity
    • 3 extant/living lineages; numerous earlier groups subsequently went extinct
      • Caballines - domestic horse and the Asian Prezwalski's horse
        • Domesticated c. 5,000 years ago (Orlando et al. 2005)
      • Asses - domestic donkey, African wild asses, and Asiatic wild asses
      • Zebras - plains, Grevy's, and mountain zebras

Genus Equus

  • Evolutionary history (from Duncan and Groves 2013; Prothero 2013, unless otherwise noted)
    • Earliest members date to c. 3-4.5 mya; widespread distribution throughout the northern hemisphere
    • Includes all living species in the equid family (Orlando et al. 2009)
  • Zebras (from Steiner and Ryder 2011 unless otherwise noted)
    • Evolutionary origins
      • North American origin for zebras suggested by fossil remains, found in Rancho La Brea tar-pits (Willoughby 1974; Bennett 1980)
        • Modern distribution confined to the African continent (Duncan and Groves 2013)
    • 3 extant zebra species
      • Most closely related to one another; suggested by recent genetic analysis
      • Closely allied with Asiatic wild asses (onager, E. hemionus, and kiang, E. kiang)
    • Divergence
      • Split between zebra and Asiatic wild asses occurred c.1.6 mya
      • Mountain zebra (E. zebra) split off earlier than Plains and Grevy's zebras
      • Plains zebra estimated to have evolved c. 1.2 Mya; genetic estimate supported by early fossil records that date to c. 0.7 mya (Steiner and Ryder 2011; Eisenmann 1992)

Grevy's Zebra

  • Grevy's-like horse fossils
    • Fossil remains date to c. 2 mya; found in east and south Africa (Churcher 1993; Groves & Ryder 2000)
  • Oldest Grevy's zebra fossils
    • Present in north-east Africa >1 million years ago (Marean & Gifford-Gonzales 1991)
    • Neolithic remains (5,000-3,500 years ago) from Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt (Churcher 1993)

Cultural History

Ancient Rome

  • Zebras (hippotigris or "horse with tiger stripes") displayed in the coliseum, 211-217 AD


Popular cultural references

  • Documentary appearances
    • Africa - 2013, BBC Natural History Unit
      • Episode 5, "Sahara." Narrated by David Attenborough
    • Great Zebra Exodus - 2013, PBS
      • This one hour Nature episode from season 31 explores the largest zebra population located in southern Africa, including the Grevy's Zebra.
    • Horse Tigers - 1992, PBS
      • This Nature episode from season 10 follows a herd of zebras along their yearly migration route through the African plains. The Grevy's Zebra is filmed as the species live in the drier climates of eastern Africa.
  • Other appearances


Describer (Date): Oustalet (1882)

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Perissodactyla (horse, rhino, tapir)

Family: Equidae (horse, ass, zebra)

Genus: Equus (only remaining genus in family)

Species: E. grevyi - Grevy's Zebra

Page Citations

Bennett (1980)
Brown (1956)
Churcher (1993)
Duncan and Groves (2013)
Eisenmann (1992)
Gove (1993)
Groves (2013)
Groves & Ryder (2000)
Groves & Bell (2004)
Forstén (1988)
Froehlich (1999)
Hooker (2008)
ITIS reviewed (2004)
Marean & Gifford-Gonzales (1991)
Oakenfull et al (2000)
Orlando et al. (2009)
Prothero (2013)
Ryder (2009)

Steiner & Ryder (2011)
Weinstock et al. (2005)
Wilson & Reeder (2005)
Willoughby (1974)

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