Zebras, horses and wild asses are all equids, long-lived animals that move quickly for their large size and have teeth built for grinding and cropping grass. Zebras have horselike bodies, but their manes are made of short, erect hair, their tails are tufted at the tip and their coats are striped.
Three species of zebra still occur in Africa, two of which are found in East Africa. The most numerous and widespread species in the east is Burchell's, also known as the common or plains zebra. The other is the Grevy's zebra, named for Jules Grevy, a president of France in the 1880s who received one from Abyssinia as a gift, and now found mostly in northern Kenya. (The third species, Equus zebra, is the mountain zebra, found in southern and southwestern Africa.)
The Burchell's zebra is built like a stocky pony. Its coat pattern can vary greatly in number and width of stripes. The stripes are a form of disruptive coloration which breaks up the outline of the body. At dawn or in the evening, when their predators are most active, zebras look indistinct and may confuse predators by distorting distance. Their shiny coats dissipate over 70% of incoming heat.
Burchell's zebras inhabit savannas, from treeless grasslands to open woodlands; they sometimes occur in tens of thousands in migratory herds on the Serengeti plains. Grevy's zebras are now mainly restricted to parts of northern Kenya. Although they are adapted to semi-arid conditions and require less water than other zebra species, these zebras compete with domestic livestock for water and have suffered heavy poaching for their meat and skins.
The Burchell's zebra’s social system is based on a harem of females led by a stallion. Stallions establish their harems by abducting fillies who have come into their first estrus. These fillies advertise their condition with a peculiar stance: straddled legs with raised tail and lowered head. All the stallions in the area will fight for a filly in this condition, as she will permanently stay with whichever stallion succeeds in mating with her. The newest female in a harem assumes lowest social status, and is often received with hostility by the other females. Once a female has bonded to a stallion, she will no longer advertise herself when in estrus.
When a foal is born the mother keeps all other zebras (even the members of her family) away from it for 2 or 3 days, until it learns to recognize her by sight, voice and smell.
While all foals have a close association with their mothers, the male foals are also close to their fathers. They leave their group on their own accord between the ages of 1 and 4 years to join an all-male bachelor group until they are strong enough to head a family.
The zebra, though water dependent, is a very adaptable grazer, able to eat both short young shoots and long flowering grasses. It is often a pioneer in the grassland community—the first to enter tall or wet pastures. Wildebeests and gazelle follow once the zebras have trampled and clipped the vegetation shorter.
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