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Sat Jan 23, 2021, 11:01 AM Jan 2021

Spotted and oddly striped zebras may be a warning for species' future

Spotted and oddly striped zebras may be a warning for species’ future
Animals with abnormal coat patterns may be inbred, “dramatic evidence” of how habitat fragmentation can harm wildlife, a new study says.


(National Geographic) Anyone can tell you that zebras have distinctive black and white stripes. But in some cases, these African equines sport unusual color patterns, such as large, black splotches or golden coats with light-colored stripes. Spotted zebras are appearing as well. In 2019 in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, scientists recorded a polka-dotted foal, with white spots covering its dark-brown body.

Such aberrations—often caused by genetic mutations that alter the production of melanin, a natural pigment—are generally rare among mammals. So biologist Brenda Larison found it striking that an unusually high number—an estimated 5 percent—of plains zebra living near Uganda’s Lake Mburo were abnormally striped.

Though plains zebras are the least threatened of the three species, their numbers have dropped by 25 percent since 2002, with around 500,000 animals ranging from Ethiopia to South Africa. Habitat fragmentation caused by fences, roads, and human development have squeezed zebra populations, like the one in Lake Mburu, into small pockets of land, preventing some of the animals from migrating between herds.


A conservation complication

That’s worrisome, says Desire Dalton, who studies wildlife genetics at the South African National Biodiversity Institute in Pretoria, because one of zebra conservationists’ main tools is translocation—moving individual members of one population to breed in another population.

If the populations are too genetically different from each other, though, the opposite of inbreeding can occur. Outbreeding, as it’s called, causes abnormalities from genes being too dissimilar. ...........(more)


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