Episode 345: Spotless Giraffes and Spotted Zebras

This week let’s learn about some astonishing giraffes and zebras that don’t look like you’d expect!

Further reading:

See the Rare, Spotless Giraffe Born at a Tennessee Zoo

Giraffe Conservation Foundation

Brights Zoo

A tale of two zebras: South African photos used in misleading posts about Kenya’s polka-dot foal

Zebra News: Spotted Tira, Zonkeys and Zorses

Further viewing:

The Mysterious Return of Tira the Spotted Dark Zebra in Masai Mara

Kipekee the spotless giraffe [pic is from the first link posted above]:

The picture posted on Facebook by Giraffe Conservation Foundation on Sept. 10, 2023:

Tira the spotted zebra as a baby in 2019:

Tira the spotted zebra is getting so grown up (or was in 2021)!

A DIFFERENT spotted zebra from South Africa:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

I’m back from Dragon Con, where I had a great time as usual! I was careful and wore a mask while I was around other people, but masking works best when everyone wears a mask, which as we all know doesn’t happen very often right now. Luckily I didn’t get covid, but I did come down with an ordinary cold. I’m just about over it now, though, so hopefully I don’t sound too bad.

I live in Tennessee, and before I left for Dragon Con I kept seeing news reports about an unusual baby giraffe born in a Tennessee zoo. You may have heard about the giraffe calf too. As you probably know, giraffes have an elaborate pattern of markings called spots, although they’re not spots like a leopard’s spots. They look a lot like the cracks in a dried-up mudpuddle, where the muddy parts are dark brown or orangey-brown, and the cracks in between are tan or white. It’s sometimes called a web pattern, where the lighter design looks like a web overlaid on a darker coat.

Whatever you call it, all giraffes have these markings. But on July 31, 2023, a calf was born that didn’t have any spots at all. She’s completely brown. Also, very beautiful and cute as a little button.

The calf was born at Brights Zoo, which is near a community called Limestone in Tennessee. I’d never heard of the zoo, so I assumed it was in middle or west Tennessee, and I live in east Tennessee. But when I looked it up, it’s actually quite close to me. I will definitely be visiting as soon as I get a chance! (Its website says Google Maps has its address wrong, by the way, in case you plan to visit it too.) It’s a private zoo dedicated to education and conservation, and among the animals they care for are giraffes.

The calf in question is an endangered reticulated giraffe. Conservationists estimate that fewer than 9,000 reticulated giraffes remain in the wild these days, but it does well in captivity and is a popular animal in zoos. The reticulated giraffe was once common throughout northeast Africa, although its range is fractured into little areas now. It’s happy in a number of habitats, including rainforests and savannas.

The zoo came up with four name choices for their calf and invited people to vote for which name they liked best. The winning name was announced just a few days ago as this episode goes live, Kipekee. It means “unique” in Swahili, the official language of Kenya.

Kipekee is healthy and active, and the zoo reports she was immediately accepted by her mother and all the other giraffes as just a regular baby. I guess giraffes understand that what you look like isn’t nearly as important as how you act, and Kipekee acts like a curious little baby giraffe.

In a lot of news reports, you’ll hear that Kipekee is the only unspotted giraffe seen since 1972, when one was born in a zoo in Japan, and that she’s likely the only unspotted giraffe alive in the entire world right now. But then, only a matter of hours before this episode goes live, because I took forever to start working on it, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation dropped a post on their Facebook page. It has a photo of a giraffe mama and baby running along in the wild in Namibia in Africa. And the baby giraffe HAS NO SPOTS!

As of right now, that’s all we know about the other spotless giraffe calf, but I’ll definitely keep you posted in future episodes.

Speaking of updates, reading about the giraffe without spots reminded me of an episode we released at the end of 2019, about Tira the zebra. Instead of stripes like ordinary zebras, Tira had spots!

Tira was first observed by a tour guide in Kenya in September of 2019. The guide’s name is Antony Tira and the foal was named after him. Little Tira was just a baby back then, living with her herd on a national reserve.

But then, according to internet rumor, something awful happened. Little Tira and her mom were captured, put on a truck to smuggle them out of the reserve, and sold to a private collector! There were even pictures of the pair in a truck. And sure enough, Tira was nowhere to be found in the wild.

But things aren’t always what they seem, especially on the internet. Because amazingly, just like little Kipekee being born at about the same time as another super-rare spotless giraffe, little Tira was born at about the same time as another spotted zebra. The second foal was a boy who was observed in South Africa. But unlike Tira, who was safely in protected land, the second foal wasn’t so lucky. A veterinarian named Craig Bull was hired to relocate the mother and baby to a safer location, which he did with the help of his team. People saw pictures of a spotted zebra baby and its mother in a truck and jumped to the wrong conclusions.

Zebras are famous for their black and white stripes, but on very rare occasions, a genetic mutation causes the ordinary striped pattern to be broken up so that it looks like spots. Most people think zebras are white animals with black stripes, but that’s actually backwards. Zebras are black with white stripes, so when the stripe pattern is broken up, the zebra looks like a black or brown animal with white spots and streaks. Every zebra’s pattern is unique, just as every giraffe’s spot pattern is unique, so a close look at the photo of the spotted zebra in a truck shows it’s obviously not the same animal as Tira. Their spot patterns are totally different.

So what did happen to Tira? Why did she disappear? Is she even still alive?

On September 29, 2019, when Tira was probably only a few weeks old, a wildlife photographer spotted her crossing the Sand River into Serengeti Park in Tanzania with her herd. Zebra herds migrate to new pastures periodically, along with other animals like wildebeest, so that wasn’t unusual. But because life in the wild is hard for young animals, no one was really surprised when Tira wasn’t seen again.

At least, she wasn’t seen again until August of 2021, when a tour guide and photographer pair saw her in the middle of the herd. She had grown to the size of a typical two-year-old filly and looked healthy. As is common in zebras, she was still with her mother and still nursing occasionally.

That’s all we know now, but if Tira survived for two years, she’ll probably be just fine. She would be four years old now, basically a young mare, and she might even have a baby of her own by now. Hopefully some lucky photographer will see her again soon and give us an update on everyone’s favorite spotted zebra.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 149: A Zebra with SPOTS

SOMEONE forgot their flash drive at work, so here’s a short but hopefully interesting episode about a mystery animal, a zebra with spots instead of stripes!

Ordinary zebras:



Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This episode was going to be another listener suggestion, but I left my flash drive at work that has all my research and the half-written script on it. So that episode will be next week, and instead this week we’re going to learn about the mysterious spotted zebra.

Spotted zebras are occasionally, uh, spotted in the wild. They’re very rare but it’s well documented. A spotted zebra was photographed in a herd of ordinary plains zebras in Zambia in 1968, and much more recently, in September of 2019, a spotted zebra foal was photographed in Kenya.

A tour guide named Antony Tira in the Masai Mara National Reserve saw an unusual-looking zebra foal in the herd. Instead of the familiar black and white stripes of other zebras, with white belly, the foal was black all over except for small white spots. The foal has been nicknamed Tira after its discoverer.

Zebras, of course, are famous for their black and white stripes. But if a genetic mutation causes the ordinary striped pattern to be broken up, it can look like spots, or in some individuals narrow streaks. The only problem is, the spots on the zebra are white on a black background. You’d think that it would be the black stripes that would end up as black spots on a white background.

But, it turns out, we’re looking at zebras wrong. Zebras aren’t white with black stripes, they’re black with white stripes. So when a rare zebra is born with spots instead of stripes, the spots are white on a black background.

When a zebra embryo is developing inside its mother, its coat is entirely black. It develops its stripes late in its development, when skin cells form the pigments that will give the hair its color. The white fur grows from cells that contain less pigment than cells that grow black hair. Not only that, underneath the zebra’s hair, its skin is black.

Zebras live in parts of southern Africa on grasslands and savannas in both tropical and temperate areas. The common plains zebra is one of three species alive today, with a number of subspecies. It typically grows a little over four feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.3 meters, or about 12 hands high if you are measuring it the way you measure its close relation, the horse. It eats grass and other tough plants and lives in small herds. Each zebra’s stripe pattern is as unique as a fingerprint.

A zebra’s stripes serve several purposes. It helps camouflage the animal, which sounds absurd at first since there’s nothing quite as eye-catching as a zebra. But a bunch of striped animals milling about together can make it hard to figure out where one zebra ends and the next one begins. The pattern disrupts the body’s outline, too, which means a predator may have trouble figuring out where exactly the zebra is, especially when it’s partially hidden by tall grass and brush.

Not only that, the white hair helps reflect some of the sun’s heat away from the zebra. Dark colors absorb heat, and the zebra spends a lot of time in the hot sun. But having dark hair and skin helps keep the zebra from getting sunburned. That’s right, animals can get sunburned just like humans, although their fur generally helps block much of the sun’s infrared rays, which are the part of the light spectrum that causes sunburn. The dark pigment in the skin, called melanin, also helps block some of the infrared, stopping it from penetrating deeper into the skin.

Results of a study published in early 2019 shows that the cooling effects of the zebra’s coat are more complicated than just color, though. The zebra can raise the black hairs of its coat while the white hairs remain flat. The researchers propose that this helps transfer heat from the skin to the surface of the hairs by causing tiny air currents to form, which helps the zebra’s sweat evaporate more quickly and cool the body.

But another, more surprising reason for the stripes is to deter biting flies, especially the tsetse fly and the horsefly. Both carry diseases that can be fatal to zebras and other animals. Researchers had long noticed that zebras seem to be bitten less by flies than other animals are, and studies show that this is actually the case. In a study published at the beginning of 2019, some horses were given zebra-striped coats and monitored to see how flies reacted. It turns out that while the flies still approached the horses, they didn’t land on them nearly as often as they should have. Sometimes they’d even bump into the horse before flying away again without landing.

Researchers are still working out why. One hypothesis is that the tiny air currents caused by the raised black hairs make the air around the zebra just unstable enough that flies have trouble landing on the animal. Another is that the flies are attracted to linearly polarized light, which is disrupted by the stripes and make it hard for a fly to land on the zebra. In effect, they can’t actually see where the surface of the body actually is because their little fly eyes are dazzled by the pattern.

All this means that spotted zebras are at a disadvantage compared to ordinary striped zebras. The genetic mutation that causes the spots is called pseudomelanism, which basically causes more skin cells to produce more pigment than they should. The opposite of pseudomelanism is partial albinism, where the skin cells produce less pigment than they should. This results in a zebra that looks like it has cream-colored or pale gold stripes on a white background. Occasionally true albino zebras are born, where none of the cells produce pigment and the zebra is pure white without stripes at all.

Hopefully, little Tira will be fine despite having spots instead of stripes. The spotted zebra foal is definitely getting a lot of attention from photographers, tourists, and scientists.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any Es. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at Patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 001: The Thylacine and the Quagga

Re-recorded after two years, yesss! Episode one now has decent audio quality and has been slightly updated to reflect new findings about the thylacine.

The Thylacine (commonly called the Tasmanian tiger) and the quagga, a type of zebra, have two important things in common. They’re both partially striped and they’re both extinct. Sort of. The first episode of Strange Animals Podcast discusses what sort of animals both were, and why we can’t say with 100% certainty that they’re extinct. Even though we know the date the last individuals died.

The Thylacine. Look at those jaws! How does it open its mouth that wide?

Watch the 2008 thylacine (maybe) video for yourself.

The Quagga, old and new:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

If you’re wondering why episode one is suddenly appearing in your feed after more than two years, it’s because I’ve rerecorded it. Quite often people who are interested in a podcast download the first episode to check it out, and our first episode sounded TERRIBLE. So here’s a fresh new version with a little bit of extra information included.

If you’re already a Strange Animals Podcast listener, I hope you don’t mind this redone episode showing up in your feed. Don’t worry, there will be a new episode next Monday as usual! If you’re a new listener, I hope you like the podcast and stick around!

The first episode of Strange Animals Podcast is about the thylacine and the quagga. Both animals are kinda-sorta extinct and both are partially striped. So they go together!

You may know the thylacine as the Tasmanian tiger or wolf, or you may be confused and think I’m talking about the Tasmanian devil. The Tasmanian devil is a different animal although it does live in the same part of the world.

The thylacine was a nocturnal marsupial native to Australia, New Guinea, and Tasmania, but it went extinct early in the 20th century. The last known individual died in captivity in 1936. But in 2008, footage of a long-tailed doglike animal was caught on film near Perth in Western Australia.

Thylacine sightings have been going on for years—basically ever since it was declared extinct. It was a shy, nervous animal that didn’t do well in captivity and sometimes died of shock when captured, so if the animal survives in remote areas of Australia or Tasmania, it’s obviously keeping a low profile.

The thylacine was as big as a good-sized dog, some two feet high at the shoulder, or 61 cm, and over six feet long if you included the tail, or 1.8 meters. It wasn’t very fast, seldom traveling faster than a stiff trot or an awkward canter. I’ve read accounts that it would sometimes hop instead of run when it needed to move faster, but this seems to be a myth. If thylacines are wandering around outside of Perth or anywhere else, it’s surprising no one has accidentally hit one with a car. The Tasmanian devil is in such steep decline that it’s projected to be extinct in the wild by 2024 at the latest, and in 2014 over 400 of them were killed by cars.

No other animal in Australia and Tasmania looks like the thylacine. It was yellowish-brown with black stripes on the back half of its body and ringing the length of its tail. Its head was heavy and doglike, with long jaws and erect, rounded ears. Its legs were relatively short while the body and especially the tail were long. It could open its jaws startlingly wide although it didn’t have a very strong bite. It was also a quiet animal, rarely making noise except while hunting, when it would give frequent double yips.

Not a lot is known of the thylacine in the wild. Tasmanian Aborigines would build little structures over thylacine bones, since letting the bones get rained on was supposed to bring on bad weather. I still love this so much.

The thylacine was killed by British colonists who thought it preyed on livestock, but it was actually a weak hunter that probably couldn’t kill prey much larger than a chicken. In fact, some researchers think the thylacine’s primary source of food was the native hen, and once that bird went extinct in the mid-19th century, thylacine numbers started to decline. It certainly didn’t help that bounties for dead adults were as much as a pound—big money in the 19th century. Captive animals were prone to a distemper-like disease and only one pair successfully bred in captivity.

So what about all those sightings? Is it possible that small populations of the thylacine survived loss of both habitat and prey animals, bounty hunting, and competition with introduced dingos? There have been numerous organized searches for signs of the thylacine, with nothing to show except blurry photos and grainy film footage. But we don’t have anything concrete: no bodies, no clear photos, not even any good footprints.

As for the 2008 video, the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia released it in September of 2016, eight years after it was recorded. The person who took the footage states that she had seen the animal repeatedly over a matter of weeks, and had also seen a female with two pups. She says they were all striped and did not look anything like foxes.

The footage isn’t very clear, but it shows a foxlike animal with a long tail. The recording is too grainy to make out any markings. Certainly the animal doesn’t appear to have the vivid stripes seen in old photos taken before the thylacine went extinct.

To me, the animal in the footage looks a lot like a fox with an injured leg or paw, which makes its gait seem odd. Its legs are much too long for a thylacine, the body is too short, and the hocks are too far up the leg. As for the long tail, I’ve seen foxes with mange and the tails look just like this one’s.

There’s another issue against the survival of the thylacine too. According to a 2012 study conducted by Andrew Pask of the University of Connecticut, the thylacine had a very low genetic diversity to start with. Isolated breeding populations would further limit the gene pool and eventually lead to a population that couldn’t survive due to physical issues associated with inbreeding.

That study only sampled from 14 different skins and skeletons, so it’s possible the situation wasn’t as bad as its results suggest. On the other hand, the Tasmanian devil is another species with low genetic diversity, and its numbers are declining steeply despite conservation efforts.

Since this original episode one went live in February 2017, there’s been a more comprehensive DNA study of thylacines that changes what we know about their past. A September 2017 study conducted by the University of Adelaide generated 51 DNA sequences from thylacine fossils and museum specimens.

The study discovered that the thylacine population split into two around 25,000 years ago, with the two groups living in eastern and western Australia. Around 4,000 years ago, climate change caused more and longer droughts in eastern Australia and the thylacine population there went extinct. By 3,000 years ago, all the mainland thylacines had gone extinct, leaving just the Tasmanian population. The Tasmanian thylacines underwent a population crash around the same time that the mainland Australia populations went extinct—but the Tasmanian population had recovered and was actually increasing when Europeans showed up and started shooting them.

It would be fantastic if a population of thylacines was discovered still alive somewhere. But it doesn’t look good right now. On the other hand, you can still see the Tasmanian devil. Just please try not to run over one. There aren’t many left.

[goat call, because why not]

When I was maybe twelve years old I read about the quagga for the first time, probably in a library book about animals. I remember being so moved at the thought of this fascinating zebra driven to extinction that I wrote a poem about it. Unfortunately for all of us, I remember the first two lines of the poem. Yes, I’m going to recite it again. I’m sorry.

“Dear quagga, once running

O’er field and o’er plain…”

It went on and on for two entire pages of notebook paper. Thank goodness I don’t remember any more of it.

Ever since that awful, awful poem, I’ve had a soft spot for the quagga. It really was an interesting-looking creature. The head and forequarters were striped and clearly those of a zebra, but if you were to see only its hindquarters you’d swear you were looking at a regular old donkey.

The quagga was a subspecies of plains zebra, and was common in south Africa until white settlers decided they didn’t want any wild animals eating up their cattle’s grass. By 1878 the quagga was extinct in the wild; the last captive individual died in 1883. Thanks a bunch, white settlers. You made twelve-year-old me cry, and I didn’t even know about Apartheid yet.

Locals in some areas still refer to all zebras as quaggas, supposedly as an imitation of the zebra’s call. I don’t know what variety of zebra this call is from, but I’m going to guess that all zebras kind of sound the same.

[zebra call]

That really is awesome.

It’s interesting to note that still-living plains zebras show less and less striping the farther south they live. The quagga lived in the southernmost tip of Africa, south of the Orange River in South Africa’s Western Cape region, an even more southerly range than the plains zebra’s. And as a reminder, the quagga was a subspecies of the plains zebra—so closely related that it’s sometimes impossible to tell stuffed specimens of the two varieties apart. Where their ranges overlapped, researchers think plains zebras and quaggas frequently interbred.

You can see where this is going, I hope.

In 1987, the Quagga Project in South Africa started with 19 plains zebras that showed reduced striping and had genetic markers most like quaggas. After five generations of selective breeding, the project has produced six foals as of 2016 that look like the extinct quaggas. The project calls them Rau Quaggas after Reinhold Rau, the project’s founder. Rau was inspired by the work of Lutz Heck, who was the guy responsible for breeding the heck horse to imitate the extinct tarpan. If you want to know more about the tarpan and the heck horse, check out episode 47 about mystery horses.

Eventually the group hopes to have 50 Rau quaggas that will live as a herd on reserve land in South Africa. Eric Harley, a genetics professor at Cape Town University and one of the founding members of the project, points out that while the Rau quagga isn’t an exact genetic match for the extinct quagga, it’s pretty darn close.

Of course there are people who criticize the group’s efforts for various reasons. Some say that since it’s impossible to reproduce the extinct quagga exactly, there’s no point in even trying. Others say that the resources spent trying to reproduce the quagga should be spent on conserving endangered animals instead.

But the Quagga Project is actually doing something useful for South Africa: working to reintroduce a type of zebra adapted to the colder environment, which can live in groups with ostriches and other animals that typically herd with zebras. When the Dutch exterminated the quagga, they messed up the balance of species in the area. Whether or not you think the Rau quaggas are analogous to actual quaggas, they’re going to be a good addition to the wildlife preserve.

And look, here’s the thing. Everyone gets to participate in the project they love, whether or not someone else thinks that project is worth it. We all have limited time in this world. One person wants to spend their energy recreating the quagga in South Africa, another wants to set trail cams up in Tasmania to look for thylacines, and a third person might happen to want to record a podcast about those people instead of washing the dishes. And that is OKAY.

Do what you love.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a Facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!