The three zebra species are part of the Equidae family, which also includes asses and horses. Zebras are endemic to sub-Saharan Africa. The word "zebra" is Portuguese for "wild horse." It may also have its origin in the Latin word "equiferus," another word for a type of wild horse.
Burchell's zebras (Equus burchelli) live throughout sub-Saharan Africa. The species' range extends as far north as southern Ethiopia, west into Namibia and south into northern South Africa. While the animal was named for the man who first discovered and introduced the species to the western world, the story behind the name includes a bit of controversy. William John Burchell returned from his first African expedition in 1815 with 50,000 various animal specimens, which he donated to the British Museum. Unfortunately, some of these specimens were damaged while the museum kept them in storage. Burchell was understandably upset, and an argument ensued between him and museum officials that resulted in the keeper of collections naming his zebra "Asinus burchelli," or "Burchell's ass" in Latin.
Unlike Burchell's zebra, Grevy's zebra (Equus grevyi) has a black stripe down its back, larger rounded ears and a white belly. This species lives in Kenya and Ethiopia, where according to a 2009 estimate fewer than 3,000 individuals remain. Grevy's zebra is the largest zebra, and it has such a regal appearance that the emperor of what was then Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia) gifted the animal in 1882 to President Jules Grevy of France, whose name it still bears.
Hartmann's zebra (Equus zebra hartmannae) is one of two subspecies of mountain zebra. As the species name suggests, this zebra lives on mountain slopes and plateaus as high as 6,500 feet above sea level. This subspecies is endemic to Namibia, Angola and South Africa, where fewer than 30,000 survive. Distinguished from other zebras by its dewlap and the black stripe running down the center of its white belly, the Hartmann's subspecies is named after Dr. George Hartmann. A German colonial politician as well as a geographer and explorer, Hartmann supposedly named the subspecies for his wife.
Cape Mountain Zebra
The other subspecies of mountain zebra, the cape mountain zebra (Equus zebra zebra) is also the smallest living zebra. Like all mountain zebras, this subspecies has a dewlap, but it has thicker stripes than the Hartmann's zebra. The rarest of all zebras, fewer than 2,000 cape mountain zebras live in South Africa, mostly on publicly owned preserves and parkland. Unlike other types of zebra, the cape mountain zebra is simply named for where it lives -- the Eastern and Western Cape Provinces of South Africa.
- University of Michigan Museum of Zoology: Animal Diversity Web: Equus Burchelli
- EDGE Mammal Species Information: Mountain Zebra
- Grevy's Zebra Trust: About Grevy's Zebra
- Oxford University Museum of Natural History: William Burchell
- Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo: Hartmann's Mountain Zebra
- ARKive: Equus Zebra
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Zebra
- University of Michigan Museum of Zoology: Animal Diversity Web: Equus Grevyi
- Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images