Past research has suggested a mechanism for the formation of distinct stripes (did you know that stripes are magnetic?), but new research helps to explain the evolution of these beautiful patterns.
Researchers at UC Davis looked at the geographical ranges of zebras and some of their closest geographic relatives, and surprisingly, they found that camouflage, temperature, or environment variations weren’t nearly as significant as the presence of flies. It appears that in parts of the world where biting flies are more of a problem, the amount of body striping is increased.
The evolution of the zebra’s stripes may have just gotten more interesting! We know that horseflies avoid striped surfaces, and understanding how and why certain animal characteristics evolved can be really important. Not only can it help us in conservation efforts, but we can potentially use this information to develop new techniques that can help humans and companion animals! I see some zebra-striped fly sheets in my horse’s future…
How did the zebra REALLY get those stripes? By studying zebraFISH, we might be able to figure it out! And these distinctive color patterns have a pretty interesting explanation.
In certain zebrafish, the two skin cells involved in striping are called melanophores and xanthophores. And they behave like magnets! When they come in contact with one another, melanophores move away and the xanthophores chase them down. This cell interaction creates a separation between the different pigmented cells- and a beautiful distinctive striped skin pattern!
This phenomenon wasn’t seen in the skin of a type of zebrafish with ‘fuzzier’ stripes, only in zebrafish with distinct stripes. Further research investigating the gene mutations involved in the proteins in pigmented cells’ membranes might explain distinct patterns in other animals, too. Cheetahs, zebras, dalmatians- think of all the animals we could learn about with the help of this little fish! Check out the video in the link to SEE these cells chasing and running away from each other, it’s pretty cool.