Colours of Wildlife: Mountain Zebra

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Mountain Zebra

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Mountain zebra by Willem.

Did y'all even know there was such a thing as a Mountain Zebra? To be honest, this species doesn't always stay in mountainous terrain, often venturing out onto level plateaus and plains next to mountains, but it never strays too far from mountains, hills and highlands. There are two forms of mountain zebra, the Cape Mountain Zebra, Equus zebra zebra, which almost went extinct, and Hartmann's Mountain Zebra, Equus zebra hartmannae, which is still reasonably common and widespread in Namibia and Angola. Hartmann's mountain zebra is larger, reaching a bodyweight over 300 kg/660 lbs, while the Cape subspecies reaches about 250 kg/550 lbs. The Cape subspecies also has somewhat bolder striping and appears darker overall. Both subspecies are easy to distinguish from other zebra species by their stripe pattern, the stripes being broader than those of Grevy's Zebra, not reaching underneath the belly as in Burchell's Zebra, and making a 'grid-iron' pattern over the rump and tail. Also, it has a dewlap under its throat, unlike any other horse species. This, along with the stiff, striped mane, makes its neck look much thicker and more muscular, important in dominance displays between individuals. These include side-on presentations, and also touching each other's rumps with their heads, for which the gridiron rump pattern seems to serve as guidance or stimulus.

Almost Extinct

The Cape Mountain Zebra subspecies was confined to dry, mountainous regions south of the Orange River when Europeans first started exploring the interior of South Africa. They were from the outset much less numerous than the Quagga, which occupied the southern dry plains, and the Burchell's Zebra, which lived in the savannahs to the north. All the zebra species were heavily hunted, and indeed the Quagga was hunted to extinction. It was a close relative of the Burchell's Zebra, but had a mostly unstriped body. The extinction of the Quagga caught the settlers by surprise but they did not learn the lesson and kept heavily hunting the Mountain Zebra, in spite of a government ban since the mid-Eighteenth Century. By the early Twentieth Century it had been reduced to a handful of animals occurring in a few mountain regions in the Eastern Cape. The government finally acted in 1937 by proclaiming the Mountain Zebra National Park close to the town of Cradock.

The park initially had just a pitiful remnant of zebras – five stallions and a single mare. This tiny herd was gradually augmented by zebras bought from neighbouring farms and released into the park. They proved fecund and the herds grew; today there are a couple of hundred animals in the reserve, and some have been transferred to several other nature reserves in the Eastern and Western Cape.

At least the northern subspecies, Hartmann's Mountain Zebra, had a more fortunate history. Namibia was not ever as heavily settled as South Africa, and the zebras occur over a long and broad band stretching almost the entire length of the country, with a few 'breaks'. It is present in and outside many nature reserves.

Mountain Horses

The horse family is actually quite a new thing in Africa. Horses first evolved in North America about fifty million years ago; they diversified on that continent, from where they spread to South America, Asia and Europe. Only the most successful horse species made it into Africa. They were the three-toed, small species of Hipparion as well as the larger, proper, single-toed horses of the genus Equus. Several species evolved in Africa, including some very large ones. The three-toed horses all died out, but the zebras proved very successful.

The reasons for horses' success include their efficient digestion of tough, coarse grasses, and their mobility, enabling them to move rapidly over large regions. As such, zebras are associated with plains, where they can gallop fast and far.

So how come this one zebra species is associated with mountains? Actually, it is about water. Horses need to drink, unlike some antelope species that have evolved to extract all the water they need from the plant foods they eat. In the dry regions of the Cape interior, there is very little surface water available. However, in mountainous regions, there are rivers and springs, even in the very dry, semi-desert Karroo region. Mountains catch rain, and water gets concentrated as it runs down mountain slopes into gorges and valleys. The mountain zebras drink typically twice a day, and therefore never move too far away from a mountain river or stream. Especially Hartmann's mountain zebra will even dig for water. Often when a river has apparently dried out, there is still water in the sandy soil below the surface. Mountain zebras will dig in streambeds using their hooves, up to a metre/yard deep, to provide access to water. They do a service to other, smaller animals that then can also use this water.

Apart from their dependence on water, these zebras are hardy and well-adapted to galloping over rough terrain. Their hooves grow rapidly, in the wild being constantly worn down by rocks and hard soil. Indeed, in captivity, the hooves of this species often overgrow and must be trimmed. The mountains also offer them shelter. They retreat to ravines, sometimes to caves, to sleep at night, or in cold weather so as to protect them from chilling winds. Hartmann's mountain zebras also tend to seek shelter from the sun during hot days, but the Cape subspecies seems to be tougher, often resting out in the open even on the hottest days. In rainy weather – and even in these sub-deserts there are infrequent very heavy thunderstorms – they stand with their heads down and hindquarters facing the rain. On cold mornings, if the sun is shining, they'll stand with the sides of their bodies facing the sun to absorb some of its heat.

Herd Life

Like most horses, mountain zebras are herd animals. The Cape subspecies forms small herds of up to about 13 animals, while Hartmann's mountain zebra herds can number up to thirty. The herd is always based on a dominant stallion, with one to several mares, and their foals. There is a hierarchy among the mares, and they spend a lot of time with behaviour that strengthens the bonds between them. The foals usually remain with the herd until the age of about two years. The young stallions leave to form bachelor herds, where they stay until the age of five or six, when they're sexually mature, at which time they will try steal some mares of their own, or take over another stallion's mares. This can happen if the other stallion is getting old and decrepit. Sometimes dominant stallions get sick or die, in which case a new young one will take over. Herds are not territorial; their ranges often overlap, and they move around a lot; often they have different winter and summer ranges. The movement of the herd usually starts with a dominant mare; the stallion will typically hang back to guard the rear. But when they go to drink water, the stallion will be in front to make sure there's no danger from predators ambushing at the water site.

These zebras groom their short fur by scratching and nibbling; they also groom each other. They enjoy rolling in the dust, rolling first on one side, then standing up and turn to roll on the other. They excavate dust bowls up to 2.5 m wide and 30 cm/1' deep. This dust-bathing causes their coats to be stained brownish.

Mountain zebras are not as vocal as plains zebras. They squeal and cry during encounters to establish dominance; they have an alarm call as well as an alarm snort; they make sighing noises of contentment while feeding.

Mares give birth to a single foal after carrying it for about a year. Foals are born about a year and a half apart. They are playful, chasing each other around, play-fighting and mimicking the dominance displays of the adults. The youngsters are well-protected by the other herd members and have a relatively high survival rate. Mountain zebras are sexually mature at the age of five to six, and can live for twenty-five years. They're only vulnerable to the largest African predators: lions, spotted hyenas, leopards and cheetahs – and the latter two only while small. Adult zebras fight back ferociously and can kick a spotted hyena to death.

Of course, these zebras are very vulnerable to humans. Both subspecies seriously need conservation efforts and protected habitat set aside for them, for their ongoing existence.

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