Zebras: Nature’s Sister Wives

Written by Thomson Safaris

You’ve probably heard that a zebra can’t change its stripes (probably when someone was acting predictably badly), but for the actual zebra, that cliché takes on a whole new meaning.

That’s because a zebra’s stripes are like a fingerprint; each animal’s pattern is unique, and, to other members of the herd, identifiable. New hairdo, better hoof maintenance, doing something different with his tail—none of that would matter to a zebra, who would still be able to recognize an old friend by his or her specific coat pattern.

Even among zebras, the one pictured below would be hard to forget!

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And those herds look out for one another, in more ways than one.

Zebra herds are made up of a number of different families. Maybe we should say “different” families; the basic social unit for zebras is the harem…which means exactly the same thing as it does for people.

When a filly reaches mating age, she’ll be abducted by a stallion and added to his harem, where she’ll be relegated to the lowest position on the zebra sister-wife totem pole, at least until the harem grows again.

At first, the other zebra wives might treat the new girl with open hostility, but over time, the group bonds, and will defend one another fiercely. Zebras are very aware of when a herd member goes missing, and they will make efforts to find any lost members, calling out and hunting for them. This protectiveness of the family unit works well; zebras lose significantly fewer herd members to predators than either wildebeest or hartebeest, comparably sized (and therefore comparably predated) species.

Zebras in Ngorongoro CraterAdmit it. Having to share a bathroom with all these other wives would make YOU a little hostile, too.
Photo: Thomson Safaris guests, Mary Case & Ed Fishwick

The fierce emphasis on family, and the strangeness of the family unit, makes the life of a zebra look something like a wildlife cross between The Sopranos and Big Love.

So if HBO calls, tell them we have a GREAT idea for a new series. Working title: Black and White.