Zebras are fascinating animals. They are closely related to the horse we know and love, but also remain for the most part undomesticated. Most of our attention goes to their amazing stripes but zebras lead fascinating lives beyond just their striking appearance. Zebras make an amazing migration every year traveling hundreds of miles and that’s where their story gets interesting.
Zebras are social animals that live together in small and sometimes large groups in the grasslands, savannas and mountains of Africa. Related to the horse and donkey, it’s important to note that there are actually three distinct types of zebras: the plains zebra, the mountain zebra and the Grévy’s zebra. The most common species, the Plains zebra, lives in the central region of Africa, can be found often in game lands and prefers treeless grasslands and woodlands. They avoid deserts, rainforests and wetlands. The mountain zebra is only found in a small portion of southwestern Africa, native to Angola, Namibia, and South Africa. Likewise, the Grévy’s zebra only inhabits a small portion of Kenya and Ethiopia in the northeastern part of the continent. The Grévy’s zebra is the least social of the zebras and can be found in semi-arid grasslands.
Why zebras migrate
Zebras migrate each year as parts of the continent enter the dry season. Zebras migrate in a search for more nutritious foraging grounds, typically where there is more rainfall without being dependent on a permanent body of water. Some studies have shown that the grasses where zebras migrate to have higher protein levels.
When do zebras migrate?
Zebra migrations follow the seasons and vary by region, but typically the migration happens twice a year. During the dry season which usually runs from April to October, plains zebras stay in the northern area of Botswana where there are natural sources of water. During the wet season, which is usually between November and March, zebras head south.
Where do zebras migrate to?
Plains zebras spend the driest months more north along major river systems like the Chobe, the Kwando-Linyanti and the Okavango in Namibia and northern Botswana. They then move to the more vegetated regions of the Kalahari during the rainy season and into the Nxai Pan and Makgadikgadi Pan.
How far do zebras migrate?
In a 2013 tracking study conducted by the World Wildlife Fund, the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism and Elephants Without Borders found that zebras travel some 300 miles round trip on their migration. For the study, eight female zebras were sedated and collared with satellite tracking devices to monitor their movements. Researchers found that it took the tracked zebras about two to three weeks to complete the migration south. It’s also important to note that other studies suggest some plains zebras, maybe even close to half of the population, never travel south for the migration, but remain in the northern parts of these countries.
As researchers are constantly finding new methods for tracking animal movement with technology assistance, records will be changing often. With that said, there are some pretty impressive long-distance travelers in the animal kingdom beyond the zebra. The arctic tern performs a zig-zag annual migration that racks up miles, totaling some 44,000 miles a year. In the oceans, the western gray whale currently holds the record for being for mammal migration, with a female whale having swum just under 14,000 in 172 days. And if you thought planes were the only air traveler that did non-stop flights, look out for the Alaskan bar-tailed godwit, who flies close to 7,000 miles in eight days.
In terms of animals that don’t have the gift of flight, but need to use their four legs to cover ground, a 2019 survey found that caribou still hold the top traveler distinction, covering over 840 of ground in Alaska and Canada.
How do zebras know where to go?
A 2017 published study conducted by the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum concluded that zebras use memory to determine their route and where to go, even more so than the current vegetation conditions. This means that it may be hard for zebras to change their route caused by changing conditions.
How many zebras migrate in a herd?
The great migration of zebra and wildebeest across the Serengeti in Tanzania and Kenya includes about 750,000 zebras and two million mammals overall. The Botswana migration can include 30,000 to 40,000 zebras alone.
Many would think the great wildebeest migration in northern Aftrica, with some 1.5 million mammals was the largest on Earth. But there are in fact larger migrations and they involve much smaller mammals. The flying foxes, known more accurately as fruit bats gather in a migration of over 10 million! They travel from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Northern Zambia every year between October and December. Estimates calculate their combined weight at three metric tons. That’s a lot of bats, and they all travel to fit into a small swampy forest that’s only the size of a few football fields.
What dangers do zebras face when migrating?
Natural predators are always a threat to zebras, with lions preying on zebras. But man-made threats also post a danger to migrating zebras. Hunting for meat, sport and their hide have made zebras a threatened species.The migration routes of zebras is also threatened by development and human land use. Climate change has also added another variable into the zebra migration, causing weather changes.
Why do zebras migrate with wildebeest?
Zebras enjoy a symbiotic relationship with wildebeest for a number of reasons. There is safety in numbers against predators like lions. With zebras preferring taller grasses and wildebeests liking shorter, they can graze together in harmony while being able to alert each other of dangers around them.
Why are there fences to stop migration?
Farmers have put up fences to stop the spread of diseases from migrating wild animals to their cattle. This has led to some devastating mass deaths of migrating animals who couldn’t reach water.
Fencing has already killed tens of thousands of migrating animals in Africa. Some migrating species are now extinct. Other migrations have ceased to exist. But the news is not all bad. Some fences have come down and other fences have actually helped zebra populations. Researchers have noted when fences are properly placed they can protect wildlife from human interaction and allow the animals to be more relaxed. The key is to ensure fences are put up with the zebra migration routes in mind.
The great zebra migrations will continue throughout Africa and are a fascinating part of a species that is far more than just its black and white stripes.