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Joren Bruggink and Jai Lake investigate how horse flies behave around horses wearing different colored coats. Photo: Tim Caro/UC Davis

The next time you're looking to avoid getting bit by flies, you might want to try putting on zebra-patterned clothing.

Why it matters: A study published Feb. 20 in the journal PLOS ONE helps explain why zebras, with their prominent stripes, don't get bit by many horseflies. It sheds further light on a mystery that has puzzled scientists for more than a century: How did zebras get their stripes?

Tim Caro, a wildlife biologist at the University of California, Davis, and Martin How of the University of Bristol led experiments on a horse farm in Britain to observe flies' attempts to land on zebras and horses.

Background: Caro's previous research has shown that zebras are found in regions where biting flies are common and their stripes likely serve as a deterrent. The new study investigates how flies are affected by such stripes.

What they did: The scientists recorded close-up videos to determine flight trajectories as flies closed in on their targets. They also dressed the horses and zebras in black and white, as well as black-and-white striped coats, to see how the patterns and colors affected the flies' flight paths.

What they found: The study shows that the zebra stripes did not deter flies from trying to land on zebras when compared to horses. However, they saw far fewer touches and landings from biting flies, which can spread disease, than bare horses did.

  • Video analysis showed that horse flies approached zebras at faster speeds and failed to decelerate before hitting their skin. Proportionately, more horse flies hit zebras and simply bounced off when compared to horse fly approaches to horses, which involved more successful landings and bites.
  • The horses cloaked in stripes saw fewer fly landings on the striped portions, but there were no differences in landings and bites to their bare heads.

What they're saying: “Stripes may dazzle flies in some way once they are close enough to see them with their low-resolution eyes,” How said in a press release.

Go deeper

12 hours ago - World

Maximum pressure campaign escalates with Fakhrizadeh killing

Photo: Fars News Agency via AP

The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the architect of Iran’s military nuclear program, is a new height in the maximum pressure campaign led by the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government against Iran.

Why it matters: It exceeds the capture of the Iranian nuclear archives by the Mossad, and the sabotage in the advanced centrifuge facility in Natanz.

Scoop: Biden weighs retired General Lloyd Austin for Pentagon chief

Lloyd Austin testifying before Congress in 2015. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Joe Biden is considering retired four-star General Lloyd Austin as his nominee for defense secretary, adding him to a shortlist that includes Jeh Johnson, Tammy Duckworth and Michele Flournoy, two sources with direct knowledge of the decision-making tell Axios.

Why it matters: A nominee for Pentagon chief was noticeably absent when the president-elect rolled out his national security team Tuesday. Flournoy had been widely seen as the likely pick, but Axios is told other factors — race, experience, Biden's comfort level — have come into play.

Updated 14 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: WHO: AstraZeneca vaccine must be evaluated on "more than a press release."
  2. Politics: Supreme Court backs religious groups on New York COVID restrictions.
  3. World: Thailand, Philippines sign deal with AstraZeneca for vaccine.
  4. Economy: Safety nets to disappear in December Black Friday shopping across the U.S., in photosAmazon hires 1,400 workers a day throughout pandemic.
  5. Education: National standardized tests delayed until 2022.