Zebras always have black and white stripes, right? Not so, as the following examples show. Not only is every zebra different in the exact pattern and width of their stripes, but zebras also come in black, blonde and brown. The can be spotted or have parts of their body with no pattern at all!
A color morph with more black pigment is called 'melanistic'. This is a recessive trait and so remains rare in any large population. The coloration of melanistic zebras varies from wide stripes to nearly complete black coverage. (It is not clear that all black colored zebras are due to melanism but it is the most likely explanation.)
Some zebras show broken or distorted stripes and blotches. These variation are particularly rare and the location and time of the photographs available is not clear--nor is the genetic basis for the disruption of the normal stripe pattern. This may amount to a relatively even pattern of spots,
Examples: Kenya (2012)
White spots on black
in some cases melanism combined with the stripes of the zebra results in a spotted coat pattern (white on black) such as with the foal shown right and the adult zebra photographed in the sixties in Zambia (see link below). In other cases the stripes just seem to break up into spots (black on white).
Black spots on white
In some cases the color pattern is reversed. Like Marble who has a patch covered in black spots.
Some zebras have stripes that are a dark brown rather than black. This color is natural for young foals but rare in adults ("Erythrism").
Examples (wild): source unknown (2014).
At the other end of the pigment scale is albinism and leucism where zebras lack black pigment and so have pale or missing stripes. They are also referred to (for obvious reasons) as 'blonde zebras' or 'white phase zebras'.
A small herd of blonde zebras live at the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy where a number of blonde zebras were released together allowing the recessive coloring to persist in future generations of the group (rather than being breed out by zebras with the genetically dominant normal striping).
Or black stripes may be present on the body but missing on the legs or legs and under-belly.
Examples (wild): Kenya (2004)
Some zebras do not have stripes that are paler, but just smaller, leaving large sections of their body plain white.
Zebroids, or zebra horse hybrids have the shape of a horse but combine horse colors with zebra stripes.
The example shown is brown but any color including piebald is possible.
Hybrds of zebras with other equids (donkey etc) are also called zebroids also they also go by more specific names such a zedonk and zorse.
Like many hybrids, zebroids are sterile.
Another animal that looks a lot like a brown zebra is the now-extinct sub-species of the plains zebra called the quagga.
The quagga had a striped head neck and forequarters, brown body and white legs.
There is a project to recreate the quagga by selective breeding of plains zebras to resurrect its distinctive coloration.
And this guy?
This picture from Tanzania (2007) seems to show an unusual zebra with narrow stripes, a mainly while body and black mane.
- Monfort, N. (1977). Observation of a melanistic zebra (Eqrrus burcbelli) in the Akagera National Park (Rwanda). African Journal of Ecology 15, 173. [Wiley]
- Roberts, E. (1929). A zebra-horse hybrid. Journal of Heredity 20, 545-548. [Extract].
Penny Skinner (author) on February 11, 2014:
Hi Tricia, is "abunism" the right spelling? I am interested in learning more about this but searches are not bringing anything up/
Tricia on February 11, 2014:
Naji, leucism and albinism are two different things completely in how the cells TYR genes are affected and how melanin is produced. The dilute genes you see in equines (there are no albino equines) are inheritable colorations in different genes. For example: You can have a horse be homozygous for certain colors and/or patterns but if their TYR gene was damaged or malfunctioned they could still come out albino--if albino horses existed. There have been no horses test positive for albinism--ever. It is believed that such foals are not viable and are miscarried early in the pregnancy. Take a look at Lethal White Syndrome, Lavender Foal Syndrome, homozygous lethal roan gene theory, Hairless foal syndrome, and others and you can see that equine color genes appear to also affect the animals' physiology and can result in severe deformation of the intestines, jaw, feet....etc. and certain combinations result in non-viable foals. Even cremello and perlino horses have functioning TYR genes...they just also happened to inherit the creme gene. For example a chestnut horse that is homozygous for the CCr allele at the C locus (the cream dilution gene) will be a diluted creme color--aka Cremello.
Tricia on February 11, 2014:
Actually, I think the correct term for the zebra you have listed as melanistic would be abunistic since they do have patterning, just much larger and wider stripes that give the appearance of being black.
Penny Skinner (author) on April 19, 2012:
I have not found any research on it, but would guess it is similar.
Naji on April 19, 2012:
Has there been much study done on the genetics of the "albino" or leucistic zebras? Is this similar to dilution genes seen in other equids?
Elsie Nelson from Pacific Northwest, USA on December 15, 2010:
Wow, that foal is amazing! Whoda thunk, huh? Neat pictures.
Jane Bovary from The Fatal Shore on December 14, 2010:
Those zebras are amazing...and beautiful too.
thegeekgirl on December 13, 2010:
Those are really neat pictures!
Joseph Davis from Florida on December 13, 2010:
Wow, cool pics! Never have seen zebras like that! Nice hub!