Burchell’s zebra (Equus burchelli)

This unmistakable striped horse is common and widespread throughout east and southern Africa. Burchell’s zebra (Equus burchelli), also known as the plains zebra, has black and white stripes all over its body with fading stripes on the legs. Each zebra has distinctive stripes unique to each individual, like fingerprints on humans.

Their stripes are especially wide becoming wider and more horizontal towards the flanks and rear of the body. The stripes on the neck to the forelimbs are vertical and continue in the mane which is short and sticks straight up. Stripes on the limbs are narrower and horizontal and continue until reaching the hooves. Facial stripes are ordered both horizontally and vertically creating beautiful patterns. Not all stripes are distinctly black and white though, some stripes may appear a faint brown or may leave a brown “shadow” stripe in the white region.

Zebras are often seen in large herds but their basic social unit is the small, relatively stable family group, which typically consists of a stallion, up to five mares, and their collective offspring. In Uganda, zebras are present only in Lake Mburo and Kidepo Valley national parks.

Burchell's zebra in Uganda

Physical Description

Burchell’s zebra is 217 to 246 cm in length, with tail lengths of 47 to 56 cm. At the shoulder, their height is 110 to 145 cm. Naturally, like most animals, males are slightly larger than females and usually have thicker necks as well. This sexual dimorphism is not profound, however.

Newborn foals tend to have shaggy fur with brownish and buff stripes instead of black and white. Instead of newborn being purely white and black foals, they are brownish so they are more easily identified as a zebra. The tails of zebras differ from other equids because they are short and end with a black tuff of hair.

How they communicate

Burchell’s zebra uses six calls and two facial expressions in communication between individuals. Three of the calls are used as predator alert or threat calls, one is used to communicate injury, another is used in distress, and the last one is used in contact between individuals.

Additionally, Burchell’s zebras are able to visually recognize each other based on stripe patterns, which are as unique to an individual zebra as a fingerprint is to a human.

Stallions of different groups greet each other with their ears up. When they sense threat, especially in the form of combat, they will put their ears down. Greetings are also achieved through nose sniffing, rubbing, and genital smelling.

Burchell's zebra in Uganda

How Burchelle’s Zebra Behave

Burchell’s zebras are social, living in permanent family groups composed of one male stallion, 1 to 6 females, and their young. The strong bonds between females are the central relationships within harems. If the dominant stallion leaves or is killed, the harem will remain together waiting for another male to take over.

A dominance hierarchy is present in harems and employs a rank order of the dominant male, followed by the mares, and then the foals. The dominant female preserves the rank order by leading the group in single file movements, in which mares line up according to age correlated rank. Foal rank depends on mother’s rank, they stand one place directly behind her in the line, the newest mare of a harem takes the lowest social rank and is placed at the end. The stallion pulls up the rear of the line taking a defensive role in case of predator attack.

Burchell's zebra in Uganda

Foals leave the family group when they reach 1 to 4 years. Some males leave early as 9 months old, joining bachelor groups. Bachelor groups can have up to 16 members, but are generally composed of only a few males. They are usually formed by young bachelors, but may also have older stallions no longer part of a family unit.

Social grooming is seen in zebras, especially mares and their foals, stallions and their preferred mares. The grooming zebras stand side-by-side, head to tail and is effective in removing parasites and strengthening social bonds.

When a new male takes over a harem, in order to gain reproductive advantage the new stallion will kill young foals (infanticide) or force them to abort (feticide) via forced copulation. By gaining reproductive rights to a harem, the stallion is able to ensure that he is only investing parental care in his own offspring. However, infanticide is not always successful and the probability of a stallion killing a foal decreases with the foal’s age.

Several harems come together to form large herds during their migratory journeys. Relationships between harems are relatively cordial and males have a ritual greeting. When they meet, males keep their ears standing up and sniff each others’ bodies, especially their necks, nostrils, flanks, and tails. Females from other harems tend to be antagonistic towards each other.

Burchell's zebra in Uganda

Food Habits

Burchell’s zebras are herbivores that primarily graze on grass, though they also occasionally browse on herbs, leaves and twigs. Ninty percent of their diet comes from the stems and sheaths of short grasses, especially favored are Themeda triandra, Cynodon dactylon, Eragrustis superba, and Cenchrus ciliaris. Burchell’s zebras gather grass by clipping it with their upper lip and lower incisors.

They are also well-equipped with large grinding molars which are able to process the tough plant material. Their diet is low in protein, but they process large amounts of food and use hindgut fermentation to help digest tough plant materials.

Where to see Burchell’s zebra

Burchell’s zebra can be easily seen on an Africa Safari in the small Lake Mburo (easiest savanna park to access in Uganda) and in Kidepo Valley National Park.