Imagine being a young zebra prancing about in the wilderness – without any stripes. Imagine the same zebra running around with his fellow zebras adorned in polka-dots – instead of stripes. Photographer Frank Liu, during a recent trip to southwestern Kenya, took pictures of a rare baby zebra adorned in such spots.
A Maasai guide found the genetically mutated baby in Maasai Mara. He named it after his surname – Tira. The guide saw a similar case a few years back. However, that zebra maintained the stripes as well as the brush-like tail. Tira only has, what looks like polka dots.
All zebras have a distinct pattern of stripes. This is just like a human being – every person has a distinct set of fingerprints. The guide believes that Tira might be the first zebra foal, to have such a unique coloring, in the area of Masai Mara. Aside from the unique spots, instead of stripes, the zebra seems to have a different colorway as opposed to most zebras: white markings against a dark coat as opposed to dark markings on a white coat.
Tira’s abnormal stripe pattern is being referred to, by some scientists, as ‘pseudomelanism.’ This affects melanocytes. These are the cells that synthesize melanin – the black, brown, yellow, or red pigments. These determine skin cells and hair color in mammals.
Greg Barsh, a geneticist with the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, told National Geographic that there are a number of mutations that can disturb the process of melanin synthesis as well as in all of these disorders. The melanocytes are thought to be normally distributed; however, the melanin they produce is abnormal.
It is believed that Tira has all of the correct color genes; however, for whatever unknown reason, the melanin does not show up correctly in his coat as stripes. It is as though the melanin has become confused.
Tira may have a more difficult time in the wild, due to his condition. Even so, his appearance has made him a social media star. That cannot help him; however, as his difference and standing out from his herd will cause him to be an easy target for the predators. He will also face other obstacles such as repelling biting flies, which other zebras can successfully fight off. The flies can carry deadly diseases such as equine influenza.
Tira is definitely a rare-polka-dotted zebra. He has already created many fans around the world who are taken by his beauty and charm. Hopefully, there will continue to be sightings of him, and he will grow up safely in Kenya and live a full zebra life.