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Zebras have black and white stripes to keep flies away

world Updated: Feb 10, 2012 00:26 IST

PTI
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Scientists claim to have finally solved the mystery why zebras evolved their distinctive black and white stripes - to keep blood-sucking flies at bay.

Researchers from Hungary and Sweden, who detailed their study in the Journal of Experimental Biology, said that this pattern of narrow stripes makes zebras "unattractive" to the flies.

And the key to this effect is in how the striped patterns reflect light, said Susanne Akesson, from Lund University in Sweden, a member of the international team that carried out the study. "We started studying horses with black, brown or white coats. We found that in the black and brown horses, we get horizontally polarised light," Akesson was quoted as saying by the BBC News.

This effect made the dark-coloured horses very attractive to flies, she said.

It means the light that bounces off the horse's dark coat - and travels in waves to the eyes of a hungry fly - moves along a horizontal plane, like a snake slithering along with its body flat to the floor. The team found that horseflies, or tabanids, were very attracted by these "flat" waves of light. "From a white coat, you get unpolarised light reflected," Dr Akesson explained.

Unpolarised light waves travel along any and every plane, and are much less attractive to flies. As a result, white coated horses are much less troubled by horseflies than their dark-coloured relatives, the researchers pointed out.

The team placed a blackboard, a whiteboard and several boards with stripes of varying widths at a field in Hungary. "We put insect glue on the boards and counted the number of flies that each one attracted," Dr Akesson said.