Zebra stripes confuse bloodsucking flies and could inspire anti-bug device

Previous studies have shown that bugs don't bite zebras at the same rate at which they attack horses, but it was unclear why that discrepancy existed.

To check the effect was not caused by a different smell of zebras and horses, for example, the researchers put black, white and zebra-striped coats on seven horses in turn. He found horseflies had no problem spotting either group, but they were bad at landing on the striped horses. When the flies would bump into the zebra in a failed landing attempt, the zebras swatted at them with their tails, ruining their chances of re-attaching and feeding on their blood.

"Stripes may dazzle flies in some way once they are close enough to see them with their low-resolution eyes", said co-author Martin How of the University of Bristol.

Researchers on Wednesday described experiments demonstrating that horse flies have a hard time landing on zebras while easily landing on uniformly colored horses.

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The experiment involved three zebras and nine horses with uniformly white, black, grey or brown coats.

Video footage showed that striped affected the way flies landed, with the confusing "landing strip" forcing them to crash or abort landing altogether. The experiments were conducted to better understand how the stripes manipulate the behavior of biting flies as they attempt to land on the animal. Some thought stripes must help zebras blend into the grasses to avoid lions, which is the worst explanation I've ever heard. Scientists have proposed all sorts of hypotheses that might explain their evolutionary origin, including camouflage, signaling to other zebras, or temperature regulation.

"We saw that these horseflies were coming in quite fast and nearly turning away or sometimes even colliding with the zebra, rather than doing a nice, controlled flight". Stripes may therefore offer zebras vital protection, though the researchers aren't entirely sure why the pattern seems to confuse flies. Zebras swish their tails nearly continuously during the day to keep flies off; they stop feeding if bothered by them; and if the flies are particularly persistent, the zebras will run from them.

The bugs were still attracted to the zebras, and still pursued them from a distance, but couldn't nail the landing when they got close. The striped animals nearly continuously swish their tails during the day and will stop feeding if they feel bothered.

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