Are Zebras Black with White Stripes or White with Black Stripes?

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According to the principles of embryology real/original color of zebra is BLACK. White color is actually the strip around the main black background of zebras. Though there is a popular belief that zebras were white animals with black stripes but scientifically it is the opposite.

There is no denying that zebras are without a doubt one of the most exotic and stunning horse species, but let us reexamine two questions that haunt many idle minds in more detail:

1) Are zebras white with black stripes or black with white stripes?

2) What is the purpose of having such a peculiar pattern on their bodies?

Look no further, because researchers have finally landed on the answer.

And the Answer is…?

In the Medieval era, people believed that zebras had white bodies with black stripes. The proof of this hypothesis lay in the fact that they had white underbellies.

Zebra Lying

White Underbelly (Credits:Wojciech PLONKA/Shutterstock)

However, recent studies have proven otherwise. Zebras are actually black with white stripes!

Zebra embryos are completely black. The white stripes appear during the last embryonic stage.

How is the Striping Pattern Formed?

This is mainly due to selective pigmentation. As mentioned, zebra embryos are completely black and the white stripes appear at the last embryonic stage. Melanocyte skin cells produce the pigments that give color to the fur. Certain chemical messengers determine which melanocytes deliver their pigment to the zebra.


The hypothesis that zebras are black with white stripes makes sense, as the pattern is a result of pigment activation (black) and inhibition (white). This means that black is the actual color of the fur, and the white patches are simply the areas that have little or no pigmentation. The fact that the skin under a zebra’s fur is black further supports this conclusion.

What is the Purpose of these Stripes?

1) Camouflage


A zebra’s stripes actually work as a camouflage to deter its main predators: lions and hyenas. Since the animals herd together, experts believe that the mass of stripes can confuse these predators by acting as an optical illusion that blends their figures together. Therefore, a herd of zebras can create an optical illusion of a giant mass, thus deterring any predators from taking on the herd alone.

2) Regulate body temperature

Zebras spend a lot of time grazing on open plains, which means that they have to bear the intense African heat for long periods of time. The zebras with the most prominent torso stripes generally live in the Northern, equatorial region of their range, whereas those with less prominent torso stripes are more commonly found in the Southern, cooler regions of the range. This geographic distribution supports the stripes’ utility as heat regulating-tools.

Unfortunately, you’d stick out like a sore thumb if you were to wear zebra-patterned clothing. No camouflage there.

Suggested Reading


  1. The Tech Museum of Innovation
  2. University of California, Santa Barbara Science Line
  3. Zebra Stripes Not for Camouflage – UC Davis
  4. The Function of Zebra Stripes – UC Davis
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About the Author:

Ishan is a Mechanical Engineer from Mumbai University, India and is obsessed with science, food and all things football. He is a self proclaimed cyclist, runner and a professional procrastinator.

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