Zebras are known for their stripes, but one zebra foal is definitely bucking the trend.
During a trip to Masai Mara National Reserve in southwestern Kenya during September, wildlife photographer Frank Liu captured a very unique baby zebra in a series of images that have taken social media by storm.
“Last night a Maasai guide discovered an one of a kind genetically mutated baby zebra in Maasai Mara and named it after his surname – Tira,” Liu wrote on Instagram. “This morning we were one of the first ones to visit Tira! Few years ago there was a similar case, however that zebra still maintained the stripes and brush-like tail. Tira, however, has patterns that appear as polka dots! (sic)”
Every zebra has a unique pattern of stripes, just like every human has a unique set of fingerprints, but Tira really stands out from the herd. Liu told National Geographic that Tira could be the first zebra foal in the Masai Mara area to have this unique coloring.
Not only does Tira have spots instead of stripes, but he appears to have an opposite colorway to most zebras: white markings on a dark coat instead of dark markings on a white coat.
Some scientists call Tyra’s stripe pattern abnormality “pseudomelanism.” More specifically, however, it’s likely that Tira’s unusual appearance is the result of a rare genetic mutation that affects melanocytes. These are cells that synthesize melanin — the red, yellow, brown, or black pigments that determine hair and skin cell color in mammals.
“There are a variety of mutations that can disturb the process of melanin synthesis and in all of those disorders, the melanocytes are believed to be normally distributed, but the melanin they make is abnormal,” Greg Barsh, a geneticist at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, told National Geographic.
Basically, that means that this little zebra has all the right color genes, but for whatever reason, the melanin doesn’t correctly show up in his coat as stripes; as Forbes describes it, it’s as if the melanin has amnesia, or has lost its GPS.
Unfortunately for Tira, while his appearance has made him something of a social media star, his life in the wild is likely to be more difficult. Standing out from the herd will make him an easy target for predators, and he probably won’t be as successful as regular zebras at repelling biting flies, which can carry diseases like equine influenza. (Studies have shown that biting flies don’t like landing on striped surfaces.)
This truly one-of-a-kind animal has plenty of fans around the world falling in love! Hopefully, we’ll continue to have sightings of him as he grows up safely in Kenya.