Tira, the zebra foal, born dark with spots instead of stripes, near the other zebras. Copyright @frankliuphotography, all rights reserved.

Tira: a unique zebra foal

Zebras have a striking appearance by default, but sometimes, in a world of stripes, being born without them makes you even more unique. This is the case of Tira, a young foal spotted (pun intended) in the Matira Camp of Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, as reported on Sep. 14, 2019.

Tira, named after the tour guide and photographer who found him, Mr. Antony Tira, is a rare “blacker” zebra: he is mostly a dark brown with white spots, which makes a flashy, unusual look — a look that, unfortunately, may not be a positive for the young foal.

Animals like Tira have been spotted before, as early as 1964, however, it’s very rare that they grow beyond six months. The odd pattern is likely due to a melanin disorder, which makes the fur grow darker than it would usually be. Beyond the cute appearance, however, Tira lacks fur on his tail and some on his face, which may be due to underlying issues affecting the foal beyond the unusual color.

People at the Maasai Mara Game Reserve say there has been a foal like Tira in their herds, although that one still had stripes. A similar foal was seen in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, in 2016. The foal, born mostly black with bold white stripes on its rump, had very faint striping still visible against the darker background.

Melanistic zebra are quick target for predators and ostracized by their herds. The opposite also happens, with some zebra born a lighter brown or even with blonde stripes instead of black. Usually these animals do not do well in the wild, and the few that survive to adulthood are kept in captivity or in private reserves under human protection.

While the mechanics of why zebra have stripes is still not fully understood, it’s believed the stripes serve as a way to ward off flies and other insects, as they confuse the flight pattern. It may also help to confuse predators, as the zebras move in large herds and the pattern makes it difficult for a predator to pinpoint individual zebras. The latter is likely one of the reasons why melanistic and non-melanistic zebras do not survive long.

While all zebras are striped, not all zebras are striped equal. Some, such as those in Namibia, do not have striped legs, whereas those in Tanzania do. The stripes are also unique to each zebra, each having their own pattern.

(And yes, zebras are black — or dark bay — with white stripes. There’s the answer to that one age-old question!)

We can only hope Tira manages to survive to adulthood. For now, we can admire his unusual looks and continue our studies on how and why zebras are striped the way they are.

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