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Plains Zebra

Equus quagga; aka Common Zebra, Burchell's Zebra

herd of plains zebras


The most familiar of the three zebra species, the plains zebra has relatively broad black stripes that run horizontally towards the back and vertically towards the front, meeting in a triangle in the middle of the body, a stripe that runs down the center of the back onto the tail, and underbelly stripes. Although all plains zebras share these similarities in stripe patterns, no two zebras have exactly the same pattern. The mane stands upright, and the striped tail has a black tassel on the end.

Smaller on average than the other two zebras, common zebras are 7-1/4 to 8-1/4 feet long, 3-1/2 to 5 feet high, and weigh 390 to 850 pounds. Although their legs are relatively short, zebras can run up to 35 miles per hour. The legs are also quite strong and capable of delivering a potentially lethal kick.

Distribution and Habitat

The most abundant of the three species of zebra, this species inhabits the grasslands of eastern and southern Africa, from southern Sudan and southern Ethiopia, south along eastern Africa, as far as Zambia, Mozambique and Malawi, and through most southern African countries.

A fairly adaptable species, it can be found in tropical, subtropical, and temperate grasslands, steppes, savannas, and woodlands, from sea level to 14,100 feet (on Mount Kenya). Only deserts, dense woodlands, and permanent wetlands are avoided. They need to drink daily, however, so they are never more than around half a day's travel from a reliable water source.


Zebras feed on a variety of grasses, as well as leaves and shoots. Although they prefer young, fresh grass, they are able to survive upon coarse vegetation which would be inadequate to fulfil the energetic requirements of other ungulates, and they are often the first grazers to appear in a well-vegetated area. They require large quantities of food, however, and may spend up to 20 hours per day foraging. The plains zebra is known to travel great distances to find food and water when the dry season arrives.

Habits and Behaviors

The plains zebra has a complex social system, with the main social unit consisting of a 'harem' consisting of 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 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. 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. 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.

If one zebra spots a predator, it lets out a sharp two-syllable call. The young and female zebras run, while the males trail behind to defend them.

When not eating or traveling, zebras do take the opportunity to sleep, standing up. But, zebras only sleep when they are in large groups so that they can be alerted of danger.


Zebras breed throughout the year, but most births occur during the wet season. A single foal is born after a gestation period of about 370 days. The foal is able to stand and suckle within an hour. It begins grazing after a few weeks, but will not be fully weaned until 8 to 13 months of age. The young disperse voluntarily from the group when aged between one and three years, with the males joining bachelor groups until able to compete for females at around four years old. When a female reaches sexual maturity she will "advertise" her status in order to attract "suitors." Once the female has mated with a harem leader she will remain with that harem for the rest of her life, even if the leader is chased out by a competitor.

Scientific Classification

phylum Chordata
subphylum Vertebrata
class Mammalia
order Perissodactyla
family Equidae
genus & species Equus quagga


African Wildlife Federation
Animal Fact Guide
The Animal Files

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The Robinson Library >> Order Perissodactyla

This page was last updated on February 08, 2019.