Of the three zebra species, two -- the Grevy’s and Burchell’s -- live in the hot grasslands of eastern Africa. Although annual temperatures remain around 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, the year is divided between a dry season with intense sunshine and months of rain. On hot days, zebras eat at dawn and dusk, resting during the warmest hours. The other species, mountain zebras, live in the cooler climates of southern Africa.
Zebras’ main protection against heat comes from their stripes. The contrast between black, which soaks up sunlight, and white, which reflects it, helps them remain cool. In fact, they only absorb around 30 percent of the sun’s rays, and their patterns dispel the rest. Their stripes also provide extra camouflage on very hot days, enabling them to blend into the distorted, shimmering landscape so predators can’t see them from a distance.
Burchell’s zebras often travel 60 to 90 miles to reach water during the hot, dry season. They join gazelles, wildebeests and other grazers on the annual June migration through Serengeti National Park. Two million animals, including 200,000 plains zebras, congregate at Lake Victoria, which straddles the border of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. In addition to drinking water, they find food such as grass and leaves, although their grazing areas usually are larger than during the rainy season.
Grevy’s zebras, inhabitants of Kenya and southern Ethiopia, don’t rely on water as much as Burchell’s zebras. During the dry season, they usually remain within a day of a drinking hole, although lactating females can go for two days without water and other herd members can last for five. Herds often congregate near pools or lakes, and they also expand their grazing areas -- usually arid or semi-arid savannas and acacia bushlands -- to find enough food.
Mountain zebras live in South Africa, Namibia and southwestern Angola. One subspecies, the Cape mountain zebra, escapes heat by traveling up to 6,500 feet above sea level during the summer. Temperature influences their movements more than it does other zebras’ -- including the other subspecies, Hartmann's mountain zebra, which lives near the Namib Desert -- because they can usually find plenty of food and water throughout the year. During the winter, they shelter in valleys or caves to conserve heat, and on cold days, they find sunny spots.
- African Wildlife Foundation: Zebra
- University of Michigan Museum of Zoology: Animal Diversity Web: Equus Zebra -- Mountain Zebra
- University of Michigan Museum of Zoology: Animal Diversity Web: Equus Grevyi -- Grevy’s Zebra
- University of Michigan Museum of Zoology: Animal Diversity Web: Equus Burchellii -- Burchell’s Zebra
- Serengeti National Park’s Official Site: Frequently Asked Questions: Weather
- Tanzania Wildlife: Great Migration
- Serengeti National Park’s Official Site: Great Migration