How the zebra got its stripes is an age old and perplexing question. We're seeking answers to this question by identifying the genes responsible for striping and attempting to discover what advantages there may be to being striped.
If you were a grazing mammal that was the typical fare for an African lion how would you dress to live on the African plain? Would you wear drab inconspicuous clothing hoping not to be noticed? I know I would! Yet not so the zebra: they dress in bold black and white. The strategy must work or there wouldn’t be so many zebra!
So does it not matter what you wear? Are stripes actually not conspicuous under the situations in which lions usually hunt and so actually advantageous for avoiding predation? Or are they conspicuous, leading to higher rates of predation, but so advantageous in some other aspect of zebra life that they are worth the price? Plains zebra offer a natural laboratory for discovering why zebra are striped because they vary extensively in the degree of striping across their range.
Finding the genes that control striping can tell us a lot about how stripes evolved and why. Because natural selection influences the genome, genes can tell us whether they confer an advantage or not. Because of this we can map both genetic and stripe variation and compare this to geographic variation in environmental factors that we think may be important. Are zebra more striped in areas with higher temperatures, more trees or more tsetse flies? If they are this will lead to hypotheses that we can test more directly
Ultimately we expect to identify the genes that control striping in zebra and to determine whether they are advantageous. We also expect to discover the environmental factors associated with variation in striping thus obtaining clues about how striping evolved. Along the way we will discover other genes that vary among populations in different environments, and thus gain new insights about additional aspects of plains zebra biology.
You can follow along on this site as we travel to the field and labor in the laboratory to find the answers.