Spotted in Kenya: a baby zebra with polka dots Good luck, Tira! You've surely earned your spots. (Courtesy of Frank Liu/Marieke IJsendoorn-Kuijpers/Flickr)
Spotted in Kenya: a baby zebra with polka dots
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With their striking black-and-white stripes, zebras boast one of the most iconic coats of the animal kingdom. But every now and then, a zebra is born that doesn't fit the striped mold. At the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, a tour guide and photographer named Antony Tira recently caught sight of an unusual foal, its deep black coat covered with white spots.

"At first I thought it was a zebra that had been captured and painted or marked for purposes of migration," Tira tells George Sayagie of the Daily Nation, a Kenyan newspaper. "I was confused when I first saw it."

The baby zebra, which has been named Tira, in fact has a genetic condition known as "pseudomelanism," which causes abnormalities in zebra stripe patterns, as Ren Larison, a biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, explains to Katie Stacey of National Geographic. Zebras are dark skinned animals, and their stripes arise from specialized skin cells called melanocytes, which transfer melanin into some of their hairs; the hairs that have melanin appear black, and those that do not appear white. But on rare occasions, something goes awry and the melanin does not manifest as stripes.

"There are a variety of mutations that can disturb the process of melanin synthesis, and in all of those disorders, the melanocytes are believed to be normally distributed, but the melanin they make is abnormal," Greg Barsh, a geneticist at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, tells Stacey.
Genetic quirks can lead to other atypical coat patterns. Earlier this year, for instance, Natasha Daly of National Geographic reported on a "blonde" zebra at Tanzania's Serengeti National Park. The animal appeared to have partial albinism, a condition where reduced melanin causes a zebra's stripes to appear a pale, golden color.

Tira's appearance marks the first time that a spotted zebra has been seen at Masai Mara, according to Sayagie, but others like it have been observed in Botswana's Okavango Delta. As news of the unusual foal spread on social media, tourists began flocking to Masai Mara "in droves" to catch a glimpse of it. But the future may not be bright for this little zebra. Scientists have long debated the function of zebra stripes-camouflage, social-signalling and temperature control have been floated as possible theories-but many now think that the black-and-white pattern actually functions as a fly repellant. In Africa, flies carry a number of diseases that are fatal to zebras, and their thin coats make them especially easy to bite. Zebras' mesmerizing stripes seem to disorient flies, making it difficult for them to stick their landing-so without the standard coat pattern, Tira may be susceptible to dangerous bites.

But if Tira can withstand the flies, he might do just fine. Zebras, it seems, are accepting of difference; as Stacey points out, research suggests that animals with atypical coat patterns fit right into the herd.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
How would you react to seeing a spotted zebra? Why do you think you would react that way?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (6)
  • EthanD-lam2
    11/07/2019 - 10:40 a.m.

    I don't think I would believe it was a zebra if I saw one that was spotted. You just always think of zebras as having stripes, it's what makes zebras, zebras

  • PargolL-lam
    11/07/2019 - 11:30 a.m.

    I would think that seeing a spotted zebra would be very interesting and cool to see because it is very rare and its good to see things differently because it makes life interesting. I would react this way because being different is special and being the same can be boring. So seeing a different colored and striped zebra is amazing!

  • ColinM-lam
    11/07/2019 - 01:16 p.m.

    That zebra is so unique I really hope that it survives. If I had seen that out in the wild I don't think I would have thought it was really a zebra. I would love to see something that is so special because it is one of a kind.

  • NaomiW-lam
    11/07/2019 - 01:38 p.m.

    I would love to see a spotted zebra. While the typical stripes are aesthetic, I always appreciate things that are unique.

  • OliviaS-lam1
    11/07/2019 - 02:15 p.m.

    If I saw a spotted zebra in real life, I'd probably confuse it with some kind of okapi (similar-patterned animal) even though the general build of its body is different. If I knew it was a zebra beforehand, though, I think it would be a really cool once in a lifetime experience. Has this ever happened before, a spotted zebra?

  • LaurenG-lam1
    11/07/2019 - 02:24 p.m.

    That is very interesting and cool. I wonder how many other zebras have the same or similar conditions?

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