Most people can recognize a zebra at a glance; the distinctive black stripes on a horse-like frame are often synonymous with imagined visions of an African safari. Details about the zebra, including its physical characteristics and herd behavior, are less well-known. It may come as a surprise to some, for example, that one species of zebra, Grevy's, is endangered due to the loss of its habitat to agriculture.
There are three species of zebra in Africa. The most populous is the plains, or Burchell's, zebra. The other two species are Grevy's, which is named for an 1880s French president who received one of the zebras as a gift, and the mountain zebra. The Grevy's zebra now competes with livestock for water resources as agricultural land has taken over much of its natural habitat. According to the African Wildlife Foundation, the Grevy's zebras now number approximately 2,500; a few decades ago 15,000 of them existed.
Burchell's zebras inhabit savannas in East Africa, in a variety of landscapes from grasslands to woodlands. Grevy's are mostly found now only in Northern Kenya. The mountain zebra lives in Southern and Southwestern Africa.
Physical Characteristics and Lifespan
Zebras are plant eaters, and can live up to 40 years in captivity. Grevy's zebras are taller and heavier than their Burchell's counterparts: A Grevy's zebra can be as tall as 50 to 60 inches at the shoulder and weigh between 770 and 990 lbs. Burchell's are about 45 to 55 inches high and weigh between 485 and 550 lbs. The mountain zebra is built like a donkey and has an extra flap of skin on its throat. All zebras' stripes form a camouflage that makes them seem further away or difficult to see at times of day when predators are most active.
Burchell's zebras roam in organized social groups led by a stallion, which cares for a small group of mares and their foals. The mares remain together even after the stallion dies and is replaced by another. Males form bonds with other males and very large groups will migrate together, led by the oldest females, to find new sources of grass and water. The Grevy's zebras are, instead, solitary and claim territory and mate with the females whom they encounter within that territory.