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Do zebra stripes influence thermoregulation?
- Cobb, Alison, Cobb, Stephen
- Journal of natural history 2019 v.53 no.13-14 pp. 863-879
- air flow, cooling, heat transfer, hematophagous insects, racehorses, surface tension, surfactants, sweat, temperature, thermoregulation, zebras, Kenya
- The temperatures of black and white stripes on two zebras and a zebra hide were measured, throughout separate sunny days in Kenya. There is a 12–15ᵒC difference between living zebras’ stripe temperatures throughout the middle seven daytime hours. The hide temperatures reach 16ᵒC higher than the living zebras. Like all equids, zebras sweat to keep cool. Movement of sweat away from the skin is accelerated by the recently discovered surfactant equid protein latherin, a vital component of cooling in racehorses. Latherin decreases the surface tension of the sweat, facilitating evaporative cooling at the hair tips. We suggest that the abrupt temperature difference between the stripes causes chaotic air movement above the hair surface, thus enhancing evaporative heat dissipation. This cooling mechanism explains the lower temperatures of living zebra stripes than those of the inanimate hide. We observed that the black stripes can be separately erected, while the white remain flat. This may further refine the mechanism. There is an ongoing debate about the function of zebra stripes, recently focussed on the fact that stripes deter biting flies. The data and observations in this paper suggest that the primary function of the stripes may be thermoregulation and a secondary benefit, fly-deterrence.