When zebras got loose in Prince Georges County recently, the fiasco brought a great question into the light: are zebras black with white stripes, or white with black stripes? I know, it sounds a bit philosophical, but there actually is a definitive scientific answer. And it all comes down to zebra hair microbiology, where their dual-colored pattern originates.
Beneath their fur, zebras are actually black skinned. But that doesn’t necessarily mean their stripes are white on black. The majority of zebra hair is white, including the hair on their bellies & the inner parts of their legs (which is where their stripes seem to diminish). So, is that it then? They’re white with black stripes? Nope, not quite.
The real answer is found in a group of zebras’ cells called melanocytes, which produce the pigment melanin that gives zebra hair its color (and not only zebras, but all animals’ hair & skin).
The melanocytes in zebra fur follicles ultimately determine whether particular strands will be dark or light based on where they are on the body. A good portion of a zebra’s melanocytes create its high-in-melanin black fur, which makes up about half of its coat, while other melanocytes are, in essence, “turned off”, and produce a zebra’s white hairs (which contain no melanin).
So, what’s the final answer to our question? Well, if we’re talking genetically, zebras grow black hair by default, so that makes them black with white stripes. WHY they have this zig-zag color pattern, though, is a whole other “Mundane Mystery” for another time, since scientists aren’t really sure why zebras look like they do (though I think we can all agree that the zebra stripe is the most stylish in nature).
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