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Scientists unravel mystery of zebra stripes

Why do zebras have stripes? One study suggests that the animals' distinctive vertical black-and-white pattern may have evolved to confuse biting insects. 

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A newborn zebra stands beside its mother at the zoo in Duisburg, Germany in 2011. Researchers in Hungary say that they may have an evolutionary explanation for zebras' distinctive stripes.

Ina Fassbender/Reuters/File

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Where did zebras get their stripes? It's a question nearly as old as the one about the chicken and the egg. 

According to new research published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, zebras' stripes could have evolved as an adaptation to avoid getting bitten by flies.

Other ideas of the stripes' origins abound. Some have posited that the pattern helped to protect zebras from predators such as lions or hyenas. Others suggest that through "dazzle camouflage" the zebras' stripes help to distort a predator's perception of their speed. Dazzle camouflage has even been adopted for military uses; many British battleships in World War I were painted to look like zebras. Another theory is that zebras' distinctive markings may help the animals tell each other apart. 

The idea that zebras' stripes are a form of physical insect repellant has actually been around since the 1980s. An earlier study looked at the deterrent effects of stripes on tsetse flies, while this new study looks at stripes' effect on horseflies. 

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