We all know that zebras have a distinctive black and white stripes. However, there are some African equines that were spotted with unusual color patterns such as large, black splotches or even golden coats with light-colored stripes.

Scientists recorded a polka-dotted foal, with white spots covering its dark-brown body in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve in 2019. According to National Geographic, the aberrations were often caused by genetic mutations that alter the production of melanin, which is rare among mammals.

Biologist Brenda Larison found it striking that an estimated five percent of plain zebras living near Uganda’s Lake Mburo were abnormally striped.

Plains zebras are the least threatened of the three species, however, it is important to note that their population have dropped by 25 percent since 2002. This is largely caused by habitat fragmentation and human development that pushed zebra populations into small pockets of land.

This also prevents the animals from migrating, which is important to their long-term survival. Lack of gene flow can lead to inbreeding, infertility, disease, and other genetic defects.

“The observation [of the oddly patterned zebras] led me to wonder: Is part of the reason that I’m seeing so many is because this population is inbred?” says Larison.

She and her colleagues ran an experiment on 140 individual plains zebras – including seven zebras with unusual coat patterns.

They found that smaller, more isolated populations of zebras had lower genetic diversity, but also learned that those isolated groups were more likely to produce abnormally striped zebras.

“Even though plain zebras aren’t highly threatened, these genetic issues often show up before really problematic things start happening,” she added.

Their study has been published in the journal Molecular Ecology.

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