Burchell’s zebra (Equus burchelli), also known as the plains zebra, has black and white stripes all over its body with fading stripes on the legs. Each zebra has distinctive stripes unique to each individual, like fingerprints on humans.
Their stripes are especially wide, becoming broader and more horizontal towards the flanks and rear of the body. The stripes on the neck to the forelimbs are vertical and continue in the mane, which is short and sticks straight up. Stripes on the limbs are narrower and horizontal and continue until reaching the hooves. Facial stripes are ordered both horizontally and vertically, creating beautiful patterns.
Not all stripes are black and white, though some stripes may appear a faint brown or leave a brown “shadow” stripe in the white region.
Zebras are often seen in large herds. Their basic social unit is the small, relatively stable family group, consisting of a stallion, up to five mares, and their collective offspring.
Burchell’s zebra is 217 to 246 cm long, with tail lengths of 47 to 56 cm. At the shoulder, their height is 110 to 145 cm. Like most animals, males are slightly larger than females and usually have thicker necks. This sexual dimorphism is not profound, however.
Newborn foals tend to have shaggy fur with brownish and buff stripes instead of black and white. Instead of newborns being purely white and black foals, they are brownish, so they are more easily identified as zebra. The tails of zebras differ from other equids because they are short and end with a black tuff of hair.
Zebras use six calls and two facial expressions in communication between individuals. They use three calls as predator alert or threat calls; to communicate injury, when in distress, and to contact other individuals.
Additionally, zebras can visually recognize each other based on stripe patterns, which are as unique to an individual zebra as a fingerprint is to a human.
Stallions of different groups greet each other with their ears up, and they will put their ears down when they sense a threat, especially in combat. Greetings are also achieved through nose sniffing, rubbing, and genital smelling.
Zebras are social, living in permanent family groups composed of one male stallion, 1 to 6 females, and young ones. The strong bonds between females are the central relationships within harems. If the dominant stallion leaves or dies, the harem will remain together, waiting for another male to take over.
A dominance hierarchy is present in harems and employs a rank order of the dominant male, followed by the mares and the foals. The dominant female preserves the rank order by leading the group in single file movements, where mares line up according to age-correlated rank.
The foal’s rank depends on the mother’s position; they stand one place directly behind her in the line, and the newest mare of a harem takes the lowest social rank at the end. The stallion pulls up the rear of the line taking a defensive role in case of a predator attack.
Foals leave the family group when they reach 1 to 4 years, and some males leave early as nine months old, joining bachelor groups.
Bachelor groups can have up to 16 members but are generally composed of only a few males. They usually contain young bachelors but may also have older stallions no longer part of a family unit.
Social grooming is present in Burchell’s zebra, especially in mares and their foals, stallions, and preferred mares. The grooming zebras stand side-by-side, head to tail, effectively removing parasites and strengthening social bonds.
When a new male takes over a harem to gain reproductive advantage, the new stallion will kill young foals (infanticide) or force them to abort (feticide) via forced copulation. By gaining reproductive rights to a harem, the stallion can ensure that he is only investing parental care in his offspring. However, infanticide is not always successful, and the probability of a stallion killing a foal decreases with age.
Several harems come together to form large herds during their migratory journeys. Relationships between harems are relatively cordial, and males have a ritual greeting.
When they meet, males keep their ears standing up and sniff each other’s bodies, especially their necks, nostrils, flanks, and tails. Females from other harems tend to be antagonistic towards each other.
Burchell’s zebra are herbivores that primarily graze on grass, though they also occasionally browse on herbs, leaves, and twigs. Ninety percent of their diet comes from the stems and sheaths of short grasses, especially favored are Themeda triandra, Cynodon dactylon, Eragrostis Superba, and Cenchrus ciliaris. Burchell’s zebras gather grass by clipping it with their upper lip and lower incisors.
They are also well-equipped with large grinding molars, which can process the tough plant material. Their diet is low in protein, but they process large amounts of food and use hindgut fermentation to help digest tough plant materials.