Saturday, 9 August 2014

Wildplace Project Animals: Plains Zebra

Plains Zebra
A year ago Bristol Zoo finally opened its long planned development at Wildplace, located at Hollywood Towers Estate near Bristol by the M5. A lot of the site is old woodland, which makes it a good site for birders to visit, especially in the spring. Butterflies are also plentiful.

Plains Zebra head detail
The first animal exhibit you meet after passing through the entrance is an African Plains exhibit, holding Plains Zebra and Common Eland. I will talk about the Eland next time, so I will start this review of the Wildplace exhibits with one of the most familiar animals of Africa, the Plains Zebra.

Grevy's Zebra
Although any child can put a name to a black and white striped horse, many people do not realise that there actually several species of zebra. As well as the most widespread and numerous species, the Plains Zebra Equus quagga, there are also two subspecies of Mountain Zebra, Equus zebra, and the monotypic Grevy’s Zebra. Plains Zebra are listed as Least Concern, but the others are in more trouble. Most zebras in zoos are Plains Zebra, but there are captive populations of the other species as well.
Cape Mountain Zebra
Plains Zebras live either in bachelor herds of subadult males, or harems of a stallion plus several mares and their foals. They are of course grazers, but can live on less nutritious grasses than Thompsons Gazelles or Wildebeast. They are also famed for their long migrations in search of the best grass, following the rains. Mares have a foal each year, and if they survive the first year (50% don’t) they can have a surprisingly long lifespan even in the wild – up to 25 years. In captivity they have been known to reach 40!

Our three Plains Zebras are geldings, as they are surplus animals from the captive population and intact zebra stallions are quite a serious animal to manage, as they are vicious fighters. In the wild adult zebra stallions have very few enemies – even natural predators such as lions, hyenas and wild dogs tend to avoid them in preference for mares and foals. If you see zebras in a mixed exhibit they are invariably with animals the same size or larger – gazelles and even more their fawns may be killed by zebras in the confined space of a shared field even though they pose no threat.
One of the last Quagga's
The scientific name of the Plains Zebra refers to the first of the subspecies to be described, the now-extinct Quagga of southern Africa. The name comes from a transcription of its braying call (the “gg” is pronounced “h”) in Africaans, and unfortunately it was hunted to extinction in the wild by 1878, with the last captive specimen dying in 1883. Originally thought to be a separate species, in recent years it has been identified as simply a well-marked subspecies of Plains Zebra, with the most distinctive feature being the loss of stripes over the hindquarters. This discovery has inspired an interesting project in South Africa, which has the aim of selectively breeding together examples of southern Plains Zebras which appear to be carrying some quagga genes, presumably a result of occasional hybridisation with quaggas in the past, with the aim of restoring the quagga phenotype. Once this is done, and a pure breeding line of visually quagga-like zebras is produced, they will be used in rewilding projects in south African reserves where the true quagga formerly occurred. After four generation at least some of the latest foals are showing a fairly close approach to the characteristic half-striped appearance of the quagga. For more on this, see the Quagga Project website at
Quagga Project Zebra
Next week, the Common Eland

(Plains Zebra images are my own, other species from Wikipedia and the Quagga Project)

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