How the Zebra (and the researcher) Got Its Stripes

February 6, 2017
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If that doesn’t grab your attention, then perhaps this?

A recent piece at WIRED profiled wildlife biologist Tim Caro’s fieldwork for Zebra Stripes, under the zingy headline, “The Man in the Zebra Suit Knows the Secret of the Stripes,” though the article itself willingly deep dives into Caro’s behaviorial-ist adventures. Zebra Stripes is based on Caro’s decade of fieldwork, which questioned the significance of black-and-white striping, and through every possible hypothetical series of circumstances, arrived at an unexpected conclusion: zebra markings are nature’s defense against fly bites.

As WIRED writes:

At four in the morning, Tim Caro roused his colleagues. Bleary-eyed and grumbling, they followed him to the edge of the village, where the beasts were hiding. He sat them down in chairs, and after letting their eyes adjust for a minute, he asked them if they saw anything. And if so, would they please point where?

Not real beasts. Despite being camped in Tanzania’s Katavi National Park, Caro was asking his colleagues to identify pelts—from a wildebeest, an impala, and a zebra—that he had draped over chairs or clotheslines. Caro wanted to know if the zebra’s stripes gave it any sort of camouflage in the pre-dawn, when many predators hunt, and he needed the sort of replicability he could not count on from the animals roaming the savannah. “I lost a lot of social capital on that experiment,” says Caro. “If you’re going to be woken up at all, it’s important to be woken up for something exciting or unpredictable, and this was neither.”

The experiment was one of hundreds Caro performed over a twenty year scientific odyssey to discover why zebras have stripes—a question that nearly every major biologist since Alfred Russel Wallace has tried to answer. “It became sort of a challenge to me to try and investigate all the existing hypotheses so I could not only identify the right one,” he says, “but just as importantly kill all those remaining.” His new book, Zebra Stripes, chronicles every detail.

This is not a book for casual pop science readers. It is a book about doing science, full of every detail you’d need to reproduce any of the experiments done in the book: distances for viewing pelts; reflectance values for zebra hair; thermal camera settings for taking infrared pictures; speaker settings for playing predator noises; histograms, leaf and tree diagrams, scatter plots; page after page of references. This book is for scientists, or those who wish they’d become scientists. And as treats for the latter, there the anecdotes of Caro’s scientific antics: Tales of how he systematically worked through each hypothesis until he figured out the secret of the stripes.

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To read more about Zebra Stripes, click here.

To read the WIRED piece in full, click here.

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