zebra, herbivorous hoofed African mammal of the genus Equus, which also includes the horse and the ass. It is distinguished by its striking pattern of black or dark brown stripes alternating with white. In size and body form it is intermediate between the larger horse and the smaller ass. It has a heavy head, stout body, short, stiff mane, and tufted tail. There are three zebra species; the quagga, which became extinct in the late 19th cent., is not a separate species as was once thought but a variant of the plains zebra.
Most zebras inhabit open plains or brush country, while mountain zebras favor rocky hillsides. Zebra herds on the Serengeti of E Africa can be as large as 200,000 individuals, but all are organized in family groups led by a stallion. The plains zebras usually mix with other grazing animals, such as wildebeest and antelopes. They are swift runners, achieving speeds of up to 40 mph. Some authorities believe that the stripes evolved as visual identification to reinforce social bonds with other zebras, rather than for disguise or insect protection. The zebra's natural enemies are the lion and the leopard.
The plains zebra, or common zebra, E. quagga (formerly E. burchellii), is found throughout Africa S of the Sahara. It stands about 4 ft (120 cm) tall at the shoulder and has small ears. It has very broad stripes, which vary greatly in their pattern among the several subspecies, as well as among individuals of the same subspecies.
Grevy's zebra, E. grevyi, is a large zebra found in E Africa. It stands 41⁄2 to 5 ft (140–150 cm) at the shoulder and weighs about 600 lb (270 kg). It has large, rounded ears and numerous very narrow stripes. Grevy's zebra is now considered endangered, its numbers having been dramatically reduced since the 1970s.
Most distinctive is the mountain zebra, E. zebra, with a donkeylike build, long ears, and a characteristic stripe pattern. Unlike any other member of the genus Equus, its throat has a dewlap. One subspecies of the mountain zebra, Hartmann's zebra, found in the arid mountains and coastal plains of SW Africa, increased in numbers in the 1980s to an estimated 15,000 from about 7,000 in 1967. The other subspecies, the endangered Cape mountain zebra, is rarely found outside a protected area in South Africa.
Zebras have been hunted extensively for their flesh and skins. Zebras have been crossed with horses in an attempt to produce a draft animal, but the offspring have proved sterile and unreliable. Zebras are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Perissodactyla, family Equidae.
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