From a visual perspective, zebras look quite harmless, with a striking pajamas color that makes them even more endearing. They might be your favorite horse with strips, but that is until you discover the dark truth about them. If you’re here, then you are probably asking the same questions on everyone’s mind – why do zebras attack baby zebras?
There are two major reasons male zebras attack baby zebras. First, they do so to eliminate any foal that is not theirs when taking over a herd. Secondly, they do this to ensure the foals don’t grow up to become a rival in the future.
The killing of baby zebras by the older males is called infanticide and is not only common among zebras but also in primates, rodents, and even mammals.
In this article, we are going to look at some of the possible reasons why zebras kill foals, as well as other survival strategies they often adopt.
The Social System of Zebras
Most zebras (if not all) are social animals. They commonly live in family groups made up of a male, several females, and their foals. These groups are called harems.
Small harems of plains zebras typically consist of six females.
Zebras in a harem move together, graze together, and even protect each other.
Each harem is dominated by a male who has breeding access to all the females in the group.
Younger males without a harem would join herds of other bachelors and ousted males. They would continue to move together until they become old enough to compete for their own harems. Sometimes, these bachelor herds may coexist with other harems.
As earlier indicated, the male directs the activities of the harem. However, he can get killed or muscled out by a stronger male. For this reason, the only consistent relationship is the one between the mares in the harem and their offspring.
In fact, the females will remain together even after the death or defeat of the dominant male.
Why Do Zebras Kill Each Other?
So, why do zebras fight each other?
Bachelor zebras grow up to challenge dominant males for their harems. This often results in fierce fights involving a lot of kicking and biting.
The tussle can last for hours until one of them succumbs. When this happens, the tired zebra will probably fall to the ground while the winning male continues kicking it until he’s badly injured.
In the end, if the defeated zebra is the owner of a harem, he will relinquish it to the stronger male. On the other hand, if he’s a competitor, the stronger male will retain his harem while the defeated male will rejoin a bachelor herd.
Fights can also breakout between two zebras who already have a harem. In this case, they can fight over females to steal them for their own harem.
Sometimes, the fight between zebras can be so fierce, and one of them might not make it out alive. When this happens, it means that the stronger male kicked the other zebra to death.
Interestingly, zebra fights can also be playful, whereby the two males practice their techniques and test each other. This is often done to establish a hierarchy so that all males will fight with only males in their rank or class and avoid any encounter with a much stronger competitor, which could lead to death.
Why Do Zebras Attack Baby Zebras?
Male zebras commonly attack baby zebras that are not their offspring. This happens whenever the zebra takes over a harem that belonged to an older male he defeated.
The new leader of the harem typically kills any foal that belonged to his predecessor, thereby eliminating his bloodline.
He does this to ensure his own offspring has the best chance at survival.
This event is not only peculiar to horses but also lions. A male lion will kill other cubs that are not his when taking over a group. This is commonly referred to as infanticide.
One explanation for this is that the male animals have a limited time leading a harem. During this time, he has to establish his genetic legacy. If the female is nursing another foal that is not his, she won’t be able to carry his own baby.
So, what he does is to kill any foal he finds in the harem, so the females can come into heat, and then he can get her pregnant with his own baby. This is how he gets to transfer his genes and ensure continuity.
Sometimes the new dominant male might find the females pregnant when he takes over the harem. In this case, he might rape her in order to get her to have a miscarriage (abortion). And she does succeed in giving birth to the foal; the male will likely kick it to death.
This might sound vicious, but that’s how the toughest genes get to survive. It’s called survival of the fittest!
Why do Zebras Kill their Babies?
Male zebras do not kill their babies intentionally. They only kill babies they think belong to a rival. This usually happens when they take over a harem from the rival.
So why not father a foal from a predecessor?
As earlier indicated, a zebra has a limited time in charge of a harem before he gets muscled out by a stronger male. So providing parental care to a foal that is not his can be costly.
This is because he will have to protect the babies from other male zebras and threats and also share food and other resources with them. Thus caring for a rival’s son means he’s expending his time and resources guarding a colt that doesn’t bear his genes. It often happens that this colt will grow up to become a competitor.
To prevent this from happening, one of the strategies stallions (the male zebras) adopt is to kill any baby zebra – especially males – that is not theirs whenever they get the chance.
This is not so common with female foals since they usually mature in a couple of months, so the male can decide to keep her in the harem with other mares for mating.
Other Animals that Practice Infanticide
Zebras are not the only ones who kill their babies. Lions are also notorious for killing their young cubs. Other species with the same traits include primates – such as gorillas and chimpanzees – rodents, cetaceans, and perissodactyls.
For example, let’s look at lions and bottleneck dolphins.
Most lion prides consist of one or two mature males who sire the cubs.
Just as zebras compete with other males to keep their harems, these lions can be challenged by other males. If the rivals successfully boot out the parents, they take over the pride. And often kill any cub they come across – especially the young males still being nursed by their mothers.
Expectedly, the mothers will try to resist the slaughter, but in most cases, they can’t stand the brutal force of the males.
Later on, the females go into heat and are ready to breed again with the same males who murdered their little ones.
- Bottleneck Dolphins
A similar trait is observed in bottlenose dolphins. The males have a way of remembering every female they mate with.
Whenever they come across new females with calves, they will do everything possible to break them up. This often involves inflicting injuries on the young calves or killing them. To do this, they bash and heave them in the air.
Conclusion: Why Do Zebras Attack Baby Zebras?
So, what do you think is a zebra’s darkest side? The black stripes…? Of course, not! Nothing could be worse than them killing their youngsters.
So, why do zebras attack baby zebras?
Because they don’t want them as future competitors.
At the end of the day, it’s a game of survival.
No zebra wants to waste his time and resources raising unrelated foals that would challenge them for their mares later on. Instead, they want to raise their own young who would carry on their genes.