If you were a grazing mammal that was the typical fare for an African lion, how would you dress to live on the African plain? Would you wear drab inconspicuous clothing hoping not to be noticed? I know I would! Yet not so the zebra: they dress in bold black and white. The strategy must work or there wouldn’t be so many zebra!
So does it not matter what you wear? Are stripes actually not conspicuous under the situations in which lions usually hunt and so actually advantageous for avoiding predation? Or are they conspicuous, leading to higher rates of predation, but so advantageous in some other aspect of zebra life that they are worth the price? Plains zebra offer a natural laboratory for discovering why zebra are striped because they vary extensively in the degree of striping across their range. My colleagues and I are studying this variation in plains zebra and seeking the answers in their genes.
Finding the genes that control striping can tell us a lot about how stripes evolved and why. Because natural selection influences the genome, genes can tell us whether they confer an advantage or not. Because of this we can map both genetic and stripe variation and compare this to geographic variation in environmental factors that we think may be important. Are zebra more striped in areas with higher temperatures, more trees or more tsetse flies? If they are this will lead to hypotheses that we can test more directly.
The variety of life forms on our planet is stunning and piques our innate sense of wonder. How and why has this endless variety evolved? Discovering how evolution works and why things are as they are helps us understand the world and our place in it.
The genetics of color and the advantages of coloration in the wild are both reasonably well understood, but how mammalian stripes, spots and other patterns have evolved is unknown. Many mammals such as leopards, tigers, giraffe sport these patterns, but the zebra’s stripes are the most mysterious of all as they seem to make the zebra so conspicuous. The study of color in mice has led to increased understanding of pigmentation in general. Because pigmentation shares developmental pathways with other aspects of our biology such as hearing and eyesight we have learned a great deal of useful information through the study of pigmentation. Patterning may also turn out to share important developmental pathways, so discovering how patterning is governed may end up having benefits we cannot yet imagine.
Fieldwork and genetic work are expensive. I am funded for a large portion of my field research, but have no funds yet for the genetic work. The new high-throughput sequencing technology we are using is an essential tool for discovering the genes controlling striping and understanding how striping evolved, but it is expensive. Your money will allow me to sequence a set of 10-20 samples from each of the sites from which we’re collecting. This will allow me to identify the regions of the genome where the genes controlling striping reside. Once I’ve have identified these regions I can more finely map them to the exact genes in a follow-up study. Any level of giving is welcomed and I’ll send an email thank you that includes a link to the project website (under construction). There you’ll be listed as a donor and you can follow along as the project progresses.
Ultimately I expect to identify the genes that control striping in zebra and to determine whether they are advantageous. I also expect to discover the environmental factors associated with variation in striping thus obtaining clues about how striping evolved. Along the way I will discover other genes that vary among populations in different environments, and thus gain new insights about additional aspects of plains zebra biology.
I love being in nature. I grew up spending a lot of time in the outdoors and I'm an avid hiker, backpacker and nature observer. I'm passionate about both understanding it and conserving it. I’ve been fascinated with the variety of forms of life around us for a long as I can remember. How this diversity evolved, whether it is variation among species or differences within members of the same species, is a primary focus of my research. The zebra stripe project is a natural fit for me. I am especially intrigued by the fact that striping varies among populations of plains zebra suggesting that stripes are not equally advantageous or disadvantageous under all circumstances. I also like the fact that the topic of zebra stripes inspires not only scientists: but artists, designers, children and the merely curious. Because of this it provides a natural bridge to engage a variety of people in the scientific process.
I'm also passionate about conservation so I'm also invoved in a collaborative effort to generate data that can help save the endangered Grevy's zebra.
Things have slowed quite a bit, but I'm hoping for an uptick from the Explorers blog I recently posted on National Geographic's NewsWatch. UCLA Today is also planning an article for early next week about crowdfunding efforts at UCLA, including this project. So fingers crossed, we'll see what happens.
Thanks for to Doug Cress and Karen Doty for thier recent donations!
Thanks again to everyone who has so generously donated thus far. We have some new donors, Pauline Kamath, Alexa Pappas Zannetos, and Tom Smith.
I have also taken my new website how-the-zebra-got-its-stripes.com online, with a couple of posts about past and upcoming trips, and a donor page. It's still under construction so keep checking back every few weeks and it will keep improving and becoming more informative.
Hi All - I'm happy to see we'ver passed the 20% mark and am grateful to those of you who have donated and passed on the word! A warm welcome to Tiffany Arnold, Lynne Everett, Melissa Frey, and Jill Sweitzer.
Meanwhile, plans for the field are shaping up! Almost everything is in place for a sampling trip to Uganda in July to sample in Lake Mburo National Park as part of this project and Kidepo National Park as part of a side project. I'm very excited about visiting Kidepo National Park as it is quite remote and less visited than many other parks.
Welcome to three new project backers! Johnathan Losos, Bonny Scott and Foster and Karen Sherwood. A big thanks to all of you!
I have posted below to an article I wrote recently about the project for UCLA's Center for Tropical Research newsletter. It contains more details about the project, more interesting information about zebra patterns including, melanistic zebra, spotted zebra and some of the preliminary work done to date.
We made the main page! Thanks to everyone who helped get us there!