Plains zebra (Equus quagga)

Plains zebra social interaction
IUCN Red List species status – Near Threatened NEAR

Top facts

  • The relatively broad black stripes of the plains zebra are vertical on the body, but become horizontal on the hindquarters.
  • The plains zebra is often the first species to colonise unexploited areas of grassland, and is capable of travelling long distances to do so.
  • Although it has disappeared from many parts of its range, the plains zebra remains the most widespread and abundant equid on Earth.
  • An adaptable species, the plains zebra is capable of surviving in areas with coarse vegetation of little nutritional value, and is found at elevations up to 4,300 m.
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Plains zebra fact file

Plains zebra description

GenusEquus (1)

The iconic plains zebra (Equus quagga) is the most abundant and conspicuous of all Africa’s grazing animals (3). This species exhibits a large degree of diversity, and is currently separated into six subspecies based on variations in features such as coat patterning, the presence of a mane, extent of stripe coverage and body size (1). The plains zebra typically possesses relatively broad black stripes, which are vertical on the body, but become horizontal on the hindquarters (2) (4). The presence of horizontal stripes on the legs and rump is, however, variable, with the extent of leg striping diminishing from the north to the south of the species' range (1). In some populations there may also be faint brown 'shadow' stripes between the main stripes (2). Various theories have been put forward to explain the function of zebra stripes, including dazzling predators and temperature regulation, but the most plausible theory appears to be that they serve a social function, stimulating group cohesion and grooming behaviour (4). Other methods of plains zebra communication include facial expressions, body movements, and sounds, such as a braying bark (2).

Also known as
Burchell's zebra, common zebra, painted zebra.
Equus burchellii.
Head-body length: 217 - 246 cm (2)
Shoulder height: 110 - 145 cm (2)
175 - 385 kg (2)

Plains zebra biology

The plains zebra obtains almost all its food by grazing, feeding selectively on certain grass species such as Pennisetum mezianum (1). As a result of an efficient hindgut digestive system, this species is able to survive upon coarse vegetation which would be inadequate to fulfil the energetic requirements of other ungulates. As such, the plains zebra is able to make long-distance movements in search of food, and is often the first grazing species to colonise unexploited areas of grassland. The plains zebra’s removal of tougher growth has a valuable ecological role in allowing other ungulates to gain access to tender young growth (3). In some parts of its range the plains zebra is sedentary, while in others, such as the Serengeti, it undergoes seasonal movements in response to water availability (1).

The plains zebra has a complex social system, with the main social unit consisting of a 'harem' which comprises a single male, one to six females, which are typically unrelated, and a number of offspring. The male has sole breeding access to the females (4), but must fight off challenges from bachelor males. The fights are fierce, and involve biting as well as powerful strikes with the front feet and kicks with the rear feet (5). If the challenger proves victorious, the male is driven away from the harem, and will usually join a group of bachelor males which have yet to make a successful challenge, are too old to compete, or have also been ousted (4) (5). Interestingly, large herds of plains zebra sometimes form, usually when grazing, sleeping or moving between areas, which are composed of bachelor groups as well as harems. This multi-level social organisation is unusual, and more characteristic of primates, such as baboons, than ungulates (4).

While the plains zebra breeds throughout the year, peak numbers of births mostly occur during the wet season. The gestation period lasts for around 360 to 396 days, and a single young is produced which is capable of standing almost immediately and starts to eat grass within a week. The foal is weaned at 7 to 11 months and reaches puberty at 16 to 22 months. The young disperse voluntarily from the group when aged between one and three years, with the males joining bachelor groups until able to compete at around four years old. Females that have come into first oestrus advertise readiness to breed by adopting a distinctive stance, with the head lowered, tail raised and straddled legs. All males in the area compete fiercely for such females, and may abduct them from harems prior to voluntary dispersal. Once bonded with the successful male, the female no longer advertises when in oestrus (2).

Plains zebras are an important source of prey for several large predators, such as lions and hyaenas. When attacked, groups form a semicircle facing the predator, ready to bite or strike, and protect injured individuals by encircling them (6).


Plains zebra range

Though extirpated from many parts of its range, the plains zebra remains the most widespread and abundant equid on Earth (3). The six subspecies have overlapping distributions, occupying portions of the total range, which extends from southern Sudan and southern Ethiopia, south along eastern Africa, as far as Zambia, Mozambique and Malawi, before spreading into most southern African countries. The plains zebra is regionally extinct in Burundi and Lesotho, and possibly in Angola (1).


Plains zebra habitat

The plains zebra occupies grassland and savanna woodland, from sea-level to elevations of up to 4,300 metres on Mount Kenya (1) (3). A highly adaptable species, the plains zebra is capable of surviving in areas with coarse vegetation with little nutritional value, but needs to have access to water for daily drinking (3).


Plains zebra status

The plains zebra is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1). Five of the six subspecies are classified as Least Concern (LC): Grant’s or Boehm’s zebra (Equus quagga boehmi), plains zebra (Equus quagga borensis), Burchell’s zebra (Equus quagga burchellii), Chapman’s zebra (Equus quagga chapmani) and Crawshay’s zebra (Equus quagga crawshaii) (1). The sixth subspecies, the quagga (Equus quagga quagga), is classified as Extinct (EX) (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Near Threatened


Plains zebra threats

As a whole, this species is relatively widespread and common (1). Nevertheless, local populations and subspecies are affected to varying degrees by habitat loss, hunting, and competition with livestock for grass and water. The plains zebra population of Tanzania, for example, appears to have undergone a decline of around 20 percent from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s (1). As a result of more extensive human development and agriculture, the greatest levels of habitat loss are occurring in the southern half of this species’ range, while poaching is more prevalent in the northern half (1) (3). Despite these threats, the plains zebra is extremely resilient, and in areas where it receives protection it has made a rapid recovery from losses incurred by overhunting for its meat and skin (1).


Plains zebra conservation

The plains zebra occurs in numerous protected areas across its range, including the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, Tsavo and Masaai Mara in Kenya, Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, Etosha National Park in Namibia, and Kruger National Park in South Africa (1). While these sites harbour large numbers of plains zebra and provide valuable refuge from poaching and habitat loss, this species also appears to be doing well in some unprotected parts of its range (1). Although the plains zebra’s current situation is favourable, expanding human populations and settlements are a cause for concern. In order to guard against the possibility of future declines, measures such as improved population monitoring are necessary. In addition, investigations into alternative uses of this species, such as sharing tourist revenue with local people, would be beneficial to help lessen hunting pressure (1) (3).

View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

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Referring to members of the family equidae, comprising horses and related species, such as asses and zebras.
The state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
The time of ovulation (release of an egg from the ovary) in female mammals, when the female becomes receptive to males, also known as ‘heat’.
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
Hoofed, grazing mammals.


  1. IUCN Red List (August, 2016)
  2. Nowak, R.M. (1999) Walker's Mammals of the World. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland.
  3. Hack, M.A., East, R. and Rubenstein, D.I. (2002) Status and action plan for the plains zebra (Equus burchellii). In: Moehlman, P.D. (Ed) Equids: Zebras, Asses and Horses. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. Available at:
  4. Macdonald, D.W. (2001) The New Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  5. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  6. African Wildlife Foundation (September, 2009)

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Plains zebra social interaction  
Plains zebra social interaction

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