Polka-dotted zebra in Kenya

It’s tough to find anything cuter than a baby zebra, yet this adorable polka-dotted one beats the striped kind out of the water. A rare zebra foal with a dark coat and white polka dots was spotted in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, and caught on camera by 28-year-old photographer Frank Liu. Liu was on the lookout for rhinos when he saw the week-old zebra.

The zebra was named Tira, after Antony Tira, the Masai guide who first spotted it. The foal’s unique polka-dotted pattern is the result of a rare genetic mutation called pseudomelanism, where animals display an abnormality in their stripe pattern.

According to biologist Ren Larison, as reported in National Geographic, unfortunately zebras that exhibit this kind of discoloration tend not to survive as long. “Research on other species,” he said, “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.” Indeed, it is thought that zebra stripes evolved as a form of camouflage, so any abnormality in the pattern would stand out, and make that zebra a target. Zebra stripes are also a form of fly repellent, so it is feared that Tira may be more likely to catch diseases carried by insects.

If the foal manages to survive to adulthood, however, research has shown that zebras of aberrant coloring should have no trouble fitting into the herd, mating, and forming relationships with other zebras. Tira’s path will just be a bit bumpier than most.

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