Africa is home to 3 distinct kinds of zebras. Although all 3 species are striped, they differ markedly in appearance, behavior, and in their habitat requirements.
The tall, mule-like Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi)
has narrow vertical striping and a long, narrow head topped by very
large ears. Its social organization is like that of its wild ass
relatives. Ever-changing herds graze dry-bushed grassland areas of
Ethiopia, Somalia and northern Kenya. Grevy’s stallions are solitary
The most donkey-like of the zebras, the mountain zebra (Equus zebra) has a conspicuous dewlap (skin fold on the underside of the neck). Its small, narrow body is marked by closely spaced black stripes that widen horizontally. Short transverse stripes on the rump form a gridiron pattern. Narrow, steep hooves make this zebra sure footed in the hill and mountain terrain of southern Africa.
Top Left: This painting by the great artist George Stubbs is of a mountain zebra. It is titled simply Zebra, as it was then the only zebra known to science.
George Stubbs, 1724–1806
1763, oil on canvas
40.5 x 50.25 inches
(102.9 x 127.6 cm)
Bottom Left: Wood engraving by H. Wier of the quagga stallion presented to the Zoogical Sociery of London in 1858.
Boldy striped and round-bodied, the pony-like plains zebra (Equus burchelli), also known as the common zebra or Burchell’s zebra, has a wide distribution over savanna and plains, from Sudan to South Africa. Some two-thirds of the species’ population roams the vast Serengeti–Mara region of Tanzania and Kenya.
Stripe patterns vary in the plains zebra. The almost black striping and nearly white body color of zebras in the northern parts of its range give way in a north–south cline (or trend) to dark brown striping. In southern Africa a reduction in leg and belly striping is apparent, and shadow striping gives interspace body color. Some individuals have mottled patterns over flanks and hindquarters.
Social organization for both the mountain zebra and the plains zebra is similar to that of the wild horse, made up of family groups of a stallion and a small number of mares with their foals. The stallion maintains this harem, but it is bonding among his mares that establishes rank and provides the group’s cohesion.
Described by explorers of the 18th and early 19th centuries as the most horse-like and beautiful of the zebras, the quagga was thought by many scientists to be a separate species (Equus quagga).
However, within the past 20 years DNA studies of skin and bone samples taken from several of the 23 known quagga specimens (including the skeleton in the mammal collection of the Yale Peabody Museum’s Division of Vertebrate Zoology) indicate that this extinct zebra — chestnut to light bay in body color and striped only on its head, neck and forequarters — represents the southernmost extreme in the north–south trend of stripe reduction. The quagga is now generally regarded as a subspecies (or geographic variation) of the plains zebra.
— Dorcas MacClintock
For more on the quagga, see:
“Queen Charlotte’s Zebra,” by Dorcas MacClintock, in Discovery 23(1): 2–9.
“Professor Marsh’s Quagga Mare,” by Dorcas MacClintock, in Discovery 15(2):34–43.
“ ‘This Most Elegant of Quadrupeds’ — Illustrations of the Quagga,” by Dolores M. Gall, in Discovery 15(2):44–51.
The Yale Peabody Museum’s collections are available to legitimate researchers for scholarly use. Loans are issued to responsible individuals at established institutions. Loans and access to the collection can be arranged through the Collections Manager.
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