Three species of zebra make their home in Africa, Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi), mountain zebra (Equus zebra) and the plains zebra (Equus burchelli). All three species of zebra feature stripes but differ in other physical characteristics and behaviors.
Below are the scientific classifications of zebras:
- Kingdom – Animalia
- Phylum – Chordata
- Subphylum – Vertebrata
- Class – Mammalia
- Order – Perissodactyla
- Family – Equidae
- Genus – Equus
- Species – Equus burchellii, Equus grevyi, Equus zebra
2. Physical Characteristics
Grevy’s zebra is tall and looks similar to a mule because of its long ears and narrow face. Like other zebras, it is white with black stripes. The mountain zebra is more like a donkey with extra skin under its neck, known as a dewlap. Mountain zebras are small with narrow bodies. Their black stripes are close together and then get wider apart and shorter near the rump. Plains zebras have deep-colored black stripes and rounded bodies, similar to ponies. They are also known as common zebras and Burchell’s zebras.
All three zebra species are herbivores; grazing on grass, leaves and stems. Mountain zebras also lick mineral deposits and eat bark, seeds and nuts. About 30 percent of the Grevy’s zebra’s diet is made up of leaves and 90 percent of Burchell’s zebra’s diet consists of stems and short grass.
Mountain zebras live in craggy, temperate, mountain areas that are rich in grass and water. They prefer mountain plateaus most of the year but move to lower elevations during the cold season. Grevy’s zebras make their home in arid, dry grassland where there is a permanent water source. Burchell’s zebras live in open savannas and woodlands, avoiding thick forests, swamps and deserts.
5. Geographic Home
South and South West Africa is home to mountain zebras and some inhabit areas near the Namib Desert. Grevy’s zebras inhabit areas of Somalia and Kenya. In the past, they also inhabited Somalia but they have not been sighted there in over 40 years. Burchell’s zebras roam through southeastern Africa.
Since all zebras belong to the horse family, they communicate and behave in the same way as horses. Ear movement, stretching the lips, showing their teeth and shaking their head all indicate mood. Zebras also shake their tails to show their intentions. Zebras also touch their noses when greeting other zebras. Grevy’s zebras often use sound to express dominance.
7. Predators and Threats
The greatest threat to zebras is human encroachment. Ranchers and farmers erect fences that prevent zebras from accessing water. Harvesting zebra skins also threaten zebra populations. Predators, such as lions, hyenas, cheetahs, leopards and African wild dogs, also threaten zebra populations.
8. Family Groups
Unlike the Burchell’s zebras that live in large herds of mares with one stallion, the mountain zebras consist of small families with one dominant stallion and one to three mares. The mares usually give birth once a year and the foal depends upon the mother’s milk for 12 months. Grevy’s zebras form temporary groups of up to 20 zebras, but stallions roam and mate with any available mare.
Mountain zebras can live almost 30 years if in captivity. The average lifespan in the wild is about 20 years. If in captivity, Grevy’s zebras average about 20 to 30 years but in the wild they survive about 12 years. Burchell’s zebras have the longest lifespan of about 40 years in captivity, but only 9 years in the wild.
10. Conservation Rating
The IUCN Red List status of mountain zebras is vulnerable, which means the species is declining due to loss of habitat, hunting and harvesting. Burchell’s zebras are the only zebra species that is not threatened, however, their numbers are slowly declining. The status of Grevy’s zebras is endangered because their population has declined by over 50 percent in the last two decades.