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Plains Zebra (Equus quagga) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History and Nomenclature

Common names

  • Numerous common names
    • Plains, painted, or common zebra (Hack and Lorenzen 2008)
    • Burchell's zebra (see synonymous names below)
      • Named for the major explorer and naturalist (Beolens et al. 2009)
    • Bontequagga (Groves 1974)
  • Etymology of zebra
    • The Abyssinian name for the animal (Brown 1956)

Scientific name

  • Etymology
    • Genus Equus from Latin equinus meaning "horse" (Gove 1993)
    • Subgenus Hippotigris from two words, hippo from Greek meaning "pony or horse" and tigris from Latin meaning "of tigers" (Brown 1956)
    • Specific epithet quagga of Khoisan or Chochoque (inhabitants of South Africa) origin; from i-qwara or qwara meaning "something striped or speckled" (Gove 1993; Klingel 2013)
      • Pronounced 'kwa-gə' (click here for audio of pronunciation)
  • Synonymous names (Klingel 2013)
    • Nearly 50 proposed specific epithets
    • E. burchellii, commonly used

Evolutionary History

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

  • Center of evolutionary origin
    • 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
      • 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)
    • Quagga extinction in 1883 (Duncan and Groves 2013)
      • Subspecies of plains zebra
      • Last individual died in Amsterdam Zoo

Hybridization in equids (from Duncan and Groves 2013 unless otherwise noted)

  • Interbreed in managed care
    • Occurs among all zebras and between zebras and other equids
      • Hybrid offspring commonly known as zedonks or zonkeys
    • Offspring typically sterile; largely due to differences in chromosome number
  • Hybridization in the wild
    • Wild hybrid suspected between Grevy's and plains zebra, Laikipia, Kenya
      • Behavior and physical appearance a mix of both parents
    • Wild zebras hybridize with donkeys, commonly in some parts of Zimbabwe
      • Known locally as Zebdonks

Cultural History

African folklore and mythology

  • Folk tales and stories
    • Why zebra has no horns; two tales
      • Hungry zebra is left behind to eat when the other animals go to select horns, story of the Ila-speaking people of northern Rhodesia/Zimbabwe (Smith and Dale 1920)
      • The once horned zebra loses them to gemsbok, a South African tale (Struik 2004)
    • How the zebra got its stripes (Honeӱ 1910)
      • A fight between zebra and baboon forever changes the appearance of both, a South African folktale
  • Mythology
    • Hooves viewed as omens of evil or misfortune, according to Lamba mythology (Doke 1927)

Ancient Rome (from Jennison 1937 unless otherwise noted)

  • Zebra displayed in exhibitions and menageries
    • Imported from a region near the Red Sea (193-211 CE); locality suggests they were Grevy's zebra (Equus grevii), though transport of other species is also possible
  • Killed in some amphitheatres

Attempts at domestication (from Willoughby 1974 unless otherwise noted)

  • Late 19th Century
    • Europeans made attempts to use zebras as transport or draft animals in Africa
      • Potential benefits: immune to tsetse-fly and African "horse sickness", resilient to climatic conditions
      • Shorter stamina and the advent of motorized transportation ended further attempts

Popular culture resources

  • Children's movies
    • Racing Stripes (2005) produced by Warner Bros. - a fictitious story of an orphaned zebra raised with racehorses and his dream to race with the thoroughbreds
    • Madagascar series (2005, 2008, 2012) produced by DreamWorks - 'a fish out of water' story of four Central Park Zoo animals, including Marty a plains zebra, shipwrecked on the island of Madagascar and their encounters with the island's native species
  • Documentaries
    • Great Zebra Exodus (2013) - a PBS/Nature film that explores parenthood and the fragility of young life in a story of loyalty and sacrifice
    • Horse Tigers (2001) - a PBS/Nature film about the varied lives of zebras and possible attempts to bring back the extinct quagga


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Perissodactyla

Family: Equidae

Genus: Equus

Species: Equus quagga - plains or common zebra (Boddaert, 1785)

**Subspecies: E. q. boehmi
Subspecies: E. q. borensis
Subspecies: E. q. burchellii
Subspecies: E. q. chapmani
Subspecies: E. q. crawshayi
Subspecies: E. q. quagga (extinct)
SubspeciesE. q. zambeziensis

(from ITIS 2014; Klingel 2013; King and Moehlman 2016)

**Taxonomic note: Subspecies listed based on morphological characteristics. Genetic studies (e.g., Lorenzen et al. 2008; Vilstrup et al. 2013; Pedersen et al. 2018) have yielded new insights but subspecies designations still being refined by taxonomists.

Burchel's Zebra

a color plate of a zebra

Color plate of Burchel's zebra appearing in Compléments de Buffon (1838).

Image credit: Available from the © Biodiversity Heritage Library via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Page Citations

Bennett (1980)
Beolens et al. (2009)
Brown (1956)
Doke (1927)
Duncan and Groves (2013)
Eisenmann (1992)
Gove (1993)
Groves (1974)
Groves (2013)
Hack and Lorenzen (2008)
Honeӱ (1910)
ITIS (2014)
Jennison (1937)
Kingdon (2013)
Klingel (2013)
Orlando et al. (2009)
Prothero (2013)
Smith and Dale (1920)
Steiner and Ryder (2011)
Struik (2004)
Willoughby (1974)

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