What do zebras, battleships and hungry flies have in common? This is something that Dr. Anna Hughes tried to answer to a pub full of people on Thursday night.
Anna Hughes is a research associate at Exeter University’s Penryn Campus. She has specialised in the study of camouflage but the question she was answering on Thursday was why do zebras have stripes?
This was part of a week-long project known as Science in the Pub, put on by Falmouth Spring Festival in partnership with Exeter, aiming to discuss issues of science and technology to the public of Falmouth.
The question of where the zebra got its stripes has been a long standing puzzle for years, and most people think they are used for camouflage. Instead, Anna informed her Jacob’s Ladder audience that it was far more likely to be due to motion dazzle.
Motion dazzle is a relatively new idea being explored by researchers, the premise of which is that high contrast patterns such as stripes or zig-zags moving at speed will confuse the vision of a predator.
This idea has been put into practice for years. In World War 1, warships were painted with elaborate patterns and colours. This was obviously not camouflage, if anything it made the ships painfully obvious to notice. Instead, its aim was to make them harder to track. The eccentric patterns made it difficult to judge distance, speed and shape.
Anna went on to explain to the crowd that recent experiments had discovered another possibility for the stripy nature of Zebras. Tim Caro, a researcher currently based at Penryn Campus Exeter suggests that Zebras have stripes to ward off flies. His research shows that the stripes on Zebras confused the flies and they were unable to land on them.
This is the most up to date and most likely theory that has been presented yet but as it stands, no one knows for definite why they have stripes. However, researchers like Anna will continue to investigate the bizarre question of why zebras have stripes.
To find out more about Science in the Pub, watch the video below!