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Which Came First, The Zebra or the Horse?

11 Feb 2020 | By Author Thornybush | Wildlife

It’s logical to believe that the zebra is in fact a horse that developed stripes as a means of survival in the wild. However, zebras are no more horses than donkeys are.

While zebras, donkeys and horses, all belong to the equine species, they each have distinct characteristics of their own. Zebras and donkeys are more closely related to each other than they are to horses.

Family Differences

The most notable difference between zebras and their domesticated cousins is that they are almost untrainable. There are very few instances where zebras have been taken out of the wild and accepted instructions from a human being.

The reason for this is that zebras have had to survive in Africa, where there are numerous large predators unlike their Eurasian cousins, who only really had wolves to deal with. This means that when cornered, they instinctively fight back a lot harder. Besides, who really wants to be riding around on a lion’s favourite prey?

Starting Out on the Same Foot

Despite these differences, zebras, donkeys and horses all descended from a common ancestor. This creature, known as Eohippus, walked the earth on 5 toes, some 52 million years ago. It was a fox-like animal which thrived in a jungle environment, feeding on fruit and leaves.

As time marched on, Eohippus moved out of the jungle and onto the plains. Unable to scurry and hide from its prey any longer, the animal developed a need for speed. This was easier to achieve by running on its middle toe, the 3rd metacarpal. This toe eventually became more prominent than the others.

This creature evolved according to its environment, getting larger, faster and fonder of grazing as it moved up the evolutionary chain. As the animal underwent these changes, it became known by several other names – Orohippus, Epihippus, Mesohippus, Miohippus, Kalabatipus, Parahippus and Merychippus.

As these animals travelled through time, they became more and more like the modern horse – losing toes, growing longer legs, and developing teeth more suited to grazing. Merychippus is believed to be an ancestor of over 19 other grassland species as well as Dinohippus which evolved into the modern equine.

A New Direction

Eventually, a creature which was very similar to the horse of today came to be and here’s where the family rift occurred. Dinohippus developed into three separate types of equid – horses, wild horses like Prezwalski’s horse, and the group containing donkeys, onagers and zebras.

So, the short answer to the question over which came first is “neither”, they developed in tandem (give or take a few centuries) along separate branches of the family tree.

See if you can spot the difference during your next South African safari with Thornybush. Get in touch to do your booking today.