If a zebra has spots instead of stripes, is it still a zebra? A photographer recently spotted a baby zebra in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve that, instead of the traditional black and white striped pattern, sports a black coat with white spots. What a non-conformist.
The zebra foal was spotted by Maasai guide Antony Tira and was named Tira after the guide. “At first I thought it was a zebra that had been captured and painted or marked for purposes of migration,” says Antony. “I was confused when I first saw it.” Photographer Frank Liu was present and snapped the pictures of the little guy. Liu was actually on the reserve looking for rhinos, but instead found the rare zebra. It’s not unheard of for zebras to have different appearances. In 1977, another polka-dotted zebra was reported. Tira is the first recorded observation of a spotted zebra in the Masai Mara. The changed appearance is the result of a genetic mutation called “pseudomelanism.” This condition caused the switch in colors and appearance.
Here’s another little tidbit for you. If you shaved off all of a zebra’s hair, their skin would be black. A zebra’s skin has an even distribution of melanocytes, specialized cells that produce melanin, which gives hair and skin its color. So what happened with Tira? Geneticist Greg Barsh, from the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, explained to National Geographic that while Tira’s melanocytes are in order, they’re not manifesting the stripes correctly. “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,” states Barsh. Why a zebra has stripes is a bit of a mystery, though many suspect that the stripes help to stave off predators. They also help repel bugs and regulate body temperature. All that means that Tira unfortunately has the odds stacked against him.