Photographer Frank Liu was snapping pictures in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve when he noticed something strange among the zebras. There was a foal that looked out of place. People may argue whether zebras are black with white stripes or white with black stripes, but what about a rare baby zebra with spots? “At first glance, he looked like a different species altogether,” Liu says.
A Rare Baby Zebra with Polka Dots
The foal sports a black coat with white polka dots, like a reverse Dalmatian. He was first spotted by tour guide Antony Tira who named him Tira. “At first I thought it was a zebra that had been captured and painted or marked for purposes of migration,” said Tira. “I was confused when I first saw it.” 
Stripe patterns are unique to each zebra, but dots are another story entirely. Tira’s coat was the first of its kind found in the Masai Mara. However, foals with similar patterns live in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. These rare baby zebras also have a predominantly dark coat, but unlike Tira, stripes circle their hind legs. 
Tira and the other foals retain their strange colors because of a condition called pseudo-melanism, according to Ren Larison, a biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. It’s a rare genetic mutation that causes abnormalities in the species-typical stripe patterns.
Another mutation that could affect the colors of zebras is partial albinism. For instance, there was a very rare blond-looking zebra found at Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. Monitoring these abnormalities could help scientists understand how species evolve and change depending on their environment.
How Do Zebras Get Their Stripes?
The melanin produced in mammals determines their coloring and pigmentation. Special cells called melanocytes create this melanin.
“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,” says Greg Barsh, a geneticist at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology.
According to Barsh, Tira still has his melanocytes but his melanin doesn’t form as stripes for some unknown reason.
Surviving as a Spotted Zebra
Unfortunately, zebras with unique coloring don’t survive much past their “foal-hood“. “Research on other species has shown that, while it is harder for a predator to target an individual in a group, it is easier if an individual is different,” said Larison.
“I have seen several photos of foals with this specific pattern over the years, but only one photo — from the ‘50s — in which the individual was either a juvenile or adult.”
Why Do Zebra Have Stripes?
There are many theories about the purpose of zebras’ stripes. These include a deterrent to fly bites (which carry diseases), body temperature regulation, social-signaling, and camouflage. If these theories were true, Tira would be more susceptible to danger, diseases, and poor health. 
However, these are just theories as Larison explained “a lot of the evidence is a bit indirect as doing the necessary experiments with live zebras would be expensive, logistically difficult, and ethically problematic.”
Still, there is good reason to believe that Tira is more at risk of attacks from predators than others in his herd. “Being obviously different from other members of the herd will likely make this foal stand out and make it an easier target for predators,” she said. “This effect may be the main reason why such variants are so rare.” 
Part of the Herd
The good news is that it’s likely that Tira won’t have any issue fitting in with the rest of his herd. Studies in South America have found that zebras with odd coloring were able to form regular relationships with their peers. 
In the meantime, Tira has attracted many visitors to the Masai Mara National Reserve who want to see the rare baby zebra. Black coat and spots aside, Tira is just adorable!