Animal Database

Plains Zebra

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Plains Zebra
Plains Zebra
Common Name Common Zebra
Range Ethiopia through East Africa to as far south as Botswana and eastern South Africa
Scientific Classification
Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Chordata
Class Mammalia
Order Perissodactyla
Family Equidae
Genus Equus
Species Equus quagga
Conservation Status
Least Concern

The Plains zebra (Equus quagga, formerly Equus burchellii), also known as the common zebra or Burchell's zebra, is the most common and geographically widespread species of zebra. It ranges from the south of Ethiopia through East Africa to as far south as Botswana and eastern South Africa. The plains zebra remains common in game reserves, but is threatened by human activities such as hunting for its meat and hide, as well as competition with livestock and encroachment by farming on much of its habitat.

Subspecies include the extinct quagga and six recognized extant subspecies, though there is great variation in coat patterns between individuals. The striping pattern is unique among ungulates in the region, and its functions are disputed. Suggested functions include crypsis, forms of motion camouflage, social signaling and recognition, and discouraging biting flies.

The plains zebra's range is fragmented, but spans much of southern and eastern Africa south of the Sahara. Its habitat is generally but not exclusively treeless grasslands and savanna woodlands, both tropical and temperate. They generally avoid desert, dense rainforest and permanent wetlands, and rarely stray more than 30 kilometers from a water source.

The plains zebra is a highly social species, forming harems with a single stallion, several mares and their recent offspring; there are also bachelor groups. Groups may come together to form herds. The animals keep watch for predators rather than attempting to hide; they bark or snort when they see a predator, and the harem stallion attacks predators such as dogs, hyenas and leopards to defend his harem. The species population is stable and not endangered, though some populations such as in Tanzania have declined sharply.


The plains zebra and perhaps the mountain zebra belong to the subgenus Hippotigris, but grévy's zebra is the sole species of subgenus Dolichohippus. The latter resembles an ass, while the former two are more horse-like. All three belong to the genus Equus along with other living equids. Recent phylogenetic evidence suggests that Grévy's zebras (and perhaps also mountain zebras) are with asses and donkeys in a separate lineage from the Plains zebra. In areas where Plains zebras are sympatric with Grévy's zebras, it is not unusual to find them in the same herds[4] and fertile hybrids occur. In captivity, Plains zebras have been crossed with mountain zebras. The hybrid foals lacked a dewlap and resembled the plains zebra apart from their larger ears and their hindquarters pattern.


In 2004, C. P. Groves and C. H. Bell investigated the taxonomy of the zebra genus, Equus, subgenus Hippotigris. They published their research in the journal Mammalian Biology. They revised the subspecies of the plains zebra Equus quagga. Six subspecies are now recognizable.

Grant's Zebra (Equus quagga boehmi)

(Matschie, 1892)

Maneless Zebra (Equus quagga borensis)

(Lönnberg, 1921)

Burchell's Zebra (Equus quagga burchellii)

(Gray, 1824)

Chapman's Zebra (Equus quagga chapmani)

(Layard, 1865)

Crawshay's Zebra (Diceros bicornis crawshayi)

(De Winton, 1896)

Quagga photo
Quagga (Equus quagga quagga)

(Boddaert, 1785)

Sometimes another subspecies is distinguished in Eastern Zimbabwe and Western Mosambique:

Selous' Zebra (Equus quagga selousi)

(Pocock, 1897)

The quagga was originally classified as a separate species, Equus quagga, in 1778. Over the next 50 years or so, many other zebras were described by naturalists and explorers. Because of the great variation in coat patterns (no two zebras are alike), taxonomists were left with a great number of described "species", and no easy way to tell which of these were true species, which were subspecies, and which were simply natural variants. The quagga was the first extinct creature to have its DNA studied. Recent genetic research at the Smithsonian Institution has demonstrated that the quagga was in fact not a separate species at all, but diverged from the plains zebra, between 120,000 and 290,000 years ago, and suggests that it should be named Equus burchelli quagga. However, according to the rules of biological nomenclature, where there are two or more alternative names for a single species, the name first used takes priority. As the quagga was described about thirty years earlier than the Burchell's zebra, it appears that the correct terms are E. quagga quagga for the quagga and E. quagga burchelli for the plains zebra, unless "Equus burchelli" is officially declared to be a nomen conservandum.

Burchell's zebra was thought to have been hunted to extinction. However Groves and Bell concluded in their 2004 publication that "the extinct true Burchell's zebra" is a phantom. Careful study of the original zebra populations in Zululand and Swaziland, and of skins harvested on game farms in Zululand and Natal, has revealed that a certain small proportion shows similarity to what now is regarded as typical "burchellii". The type localities of the subspecies Equus quagga burchellii and Equus quagga antiquorum (the Damara zebra) are so close to each other that the two are in fact one, and that therefore the older of the two names should take precedence over the younger. They therefore say that the correct name for the southernmost subspecies must be burchellii not antiquorum. The subspecies Equus quagga burchellii still exists in KwaZulu-Natal and in Etosha.

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