Photographer Spots Rare Baby Zebra with Spots Instead of Stripes


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There's an old saying that “a zebra doesn't change its stripes,” but what happens if it has no stripes at all? Though they’re instantly recognizable for their distinctive black and white striped pattern, zebras can actually take on a different appearance. This was made all the clearer by the recent sighting of an adorable polka-dotted foal at Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve.

It's impossible not to start humming “one of these things is not like the other,” when looking at the precocious zebra mixing in with the adults. The newborn is named Tira after Maasai guide Antony Tira, who first pointed him out. Pictures taken by photographer Frank Liu, who was on the reserve to look for rhinos, have now gone viral. Liu himself was taken aback when he first encountered Tira, who he thought was a different species given the fact that the foal lacks stripes.

While this isn't the first polka-dotted zebra to be discovered—one was also reported in 1977—it is quite unusual and may be the first official sighting at Masai Mara. So what accounts for this unusual appearance? Tira and others like him have a genetic mutation called pseudomelanism. This causes abnormalities in their stripe patterns.


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Normally, zebras have an even distribution of specialized cells called melanocytes. These cells produce the melanin that gives hair and skin its color. In the case of zebras, that would be black, so if you shaved off all of their fur, that's the color you would see. Though the white stripes remain a bit of a mystery, it's thought that they help stave off predators.

In Tira's case, Greg Barsh, a geneticist at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, told National Geographic that while the melanocytes are in order, for some reason the melanin doesn't manifest into stripes correctly. Unfortunately, zebras with these abnormalities don't often survive long. Besides helping zebras camouflage themselves from predators, stripes are also believed to help repel bugs and regulate body temperature. This all means that a zebra lacking their stripes will have a harder time meeting the demands of life in the wild.

h/t: [Mental Floss, National Geographic]

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Staff Editor and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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