With their striking black-and-white stripes, zebras boast one of the most iconic coats of the animal kingdom. But every now and then, a zebra is born that doesn’t fit the striped mold. At the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, a tour guide and photographer named Antony Tira recently caught sight of an unusual foal, its deep black coat covered with white spots.
“At first I thought it was a zebra that had been captured and painted or marked for purposes of migration,” Tira tells George Sayagie of the Daily Nation, a Kenyan newspaper. “I was confused when I first saw it.”
The baby zebra, which has been named Tira, in fact has a genetic condition known as “pseudomelanism,” which causes abnormalities in zebra stripe patterns, as Ren Larison, a biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, explains to Katie Stacey of National Geographic. Zebras are dark skinned animals, and their stripes arise from specialized skin cells called melanocytes, which transfer melanin into some of their hairs; the hairs that have melanin appear black, and those that do not appear white. But on rare occasions, something goes awry and the melanin does not manifest as stripes.
“There are a variety of mutations that can disturb the process of melanin synthesis, and in all of those disorders, the melanocytes are believed to be normally distributed, but the melanin they make is abnormal,” Greg Barsh, a geneticist at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, tells Stacey.
Genetic quirks can lead to other atypical coat patterns. Earlier this year, for instance, Natasha Daly of National Geographic reported on a “blonde” zebra at Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. The animal appeared to have partial albinism, a condition where reduced melanin causes a zebra’s stripes to appear a pale, golden color.
Tira’s appearance marks the first time that a spotted zebra has been seen at Masai Mara, according to Sayagie, but others like it have been observed in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. As news of the unusual foal spread on social media, tourists began flocking to Masai Mara “in droves” to catch a glimpse of it. But the future may not be bright for this little zebra. Scientists have long debated the function of zebra stripes—camouflage, social-signalling and temperature control have been floated as possible theories—but many now think that the black-and-white pattern actually functions as a fly repellant. In Africa, flies carry a number of diseases that are fatal to zebras, and their thin coats make them especially easy to bite. Zebras’ mesmerizing stripes seem to disorient flies, making it difficult for them to stick their landing—so without the standard coat pattern, Tira may be susceptible to dangerous bites.
But if Tira can withstand the flies, he might do just fine. Zebras, it seems, are accepting of difference; as Stacey points out, research suggests that animals with atypical coat patterns fit right into the herd.