A zebra's black and white stripes make them one of the most recognizable animals in the world. But these beautiful creatures aren't just here to be admired; they serve several important roles within their ecosystems and form a vital part of Africa's food chain.
Join us as we explore the (sometimes surprising) ways zebras contribute to the environment. Learn how dirt baths help arthropod diversity and why many of Africa's other large mammals rely on the zebra for survival. Here are some ways that zebras contribute to their ecosystems:
They Help with Vegetation Maintenance
Zebras require a constant water supply, so the herds migrate to follow seasonal rain. As they travel, they feed on old growth and stems. This tough vegetation is difficult for most animals to digest and possesses a relatively low nutritional value. Thankfully, the zebra's gut creates a fermentation process that allows them to digest older materials, and their teeth are specially adapted to tackle tough growths.
In this way, zebras help to "clean up" environments by removing old growths to make way for fresh new plants that other animals can graze on. This is essential for other herbivore populations, such as gazelles and wildebeests, who follow in the zebra's footsteps to enjoy the fresh growths they leave behind.
They Are an Integral Source of Prey For Carnivores
It's not nice thinking of zebras as a food source, but animals rely on other animals for sustenance as part of the great circle of life. On the Serengeti plains, around 30% of zebras are killed by lions and hyenas, who rely on them for survival.
Still, the carnivores aren't the bad guys here; they're just eating to survive. Plus, preying on these stripy equines helps to moderate the population and stabilize their ecosystem.
They Control Insect Populations
While carnivores control the zebra population, zebras control the insect population. They do this by eating the same plants that insects feed on. Without zebras, large areas of Africa would have severe problems with insect overpopulation.
They Help Create Fertile Soil
Rolling around in the dirt might not seem helpful until you look more closely at the desert systems of countries such as Namibia, where every drop of water is essential. Studies conducted on Hartmann's mountain zebra demonstrate how these incredible equines help to increase landscape heterogeneity and vegetation diversity.
Zebras roll in the dirt to self-groom and eliminate ticks and other parasites. When doing this, they create depressions in the ground around two meters wide and 10 cm deep. And these depressions remain in the area long after the zebras have finished grazing.
As zebras roll, they displace larger particles, such as gravel and pebbles, from the ground, leaving behind a finer soil layer. In addition, zebras often eliminate close to their favorite rolling sites, leaving behind a hollow area of fertilized soil that will capture any future rain and help encourage vegetation growth.
These hollowed-out havens are the perfect site for annual forbs, which struggle to grow in dry and rocky soil. Not only do zebras create the ideal environment for these plants, but it also has a knock-on effect on the survival and population diversity of many arthropod species.
What Threats Do Zebras Face?
One of the biggest threats that zebras face in modern society is poaching. People have hunted these beautiful equines for decades, and now all three main zebra species populations are rapidly declining.
Experts believe that only 2,500 Grevy's zebras may remain in the wild because their large size and premium skin make them a favorite with poachers. Once captured and killed, these skins are used to create luxury items.
And illegal hunts aren't the only things threatening the zebra's livelihood. Habitat fragmentation or loss, extreme weather, competition for resources, and lack of genetic diversity also play a significant role in the declining populations of zebras. We've examined how the grazing practices of zebras help the ecosystem around them. Still, zebras need vast stretches of untouched wilderness to survive, areas of wilderness that are rapidly shrinking across Africa.
A zebra will travel as far as 1,800 miles to search for food, but land development and agricultural expansion limit their movements and confine the herds to small areas that cannot sustain them.
How Can We Help to Protect Zebras?
There are several ways that you can help to protect zebras. The first step is to educate yourself to understand the threats these animals face and pass that information on to others. Visit the websites of essential conservation organizations, like the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, and offer support where you can.
You can also use your voice to help end harmful practices such as trophy hunting. This cruel hobby threatens some of the world's rarest species through senseless killing solely to obtain a "trophy." Never purchase luxury goods made from zebra skin (or other body parts) and if you see these illegal products being traded, report them to the relevant authorities.
While the agriculture industry is crucial to human society, it also poses a considerable threat to zebras and other endangered wildlife populations. By promoting sustainable livestock management, we can retain large areas of wilderness for the animal inhabitants of Africa and prevent death by starvation or lack of water.