Zebras are beautiful animals that you often see in open savannas where they are grazing and eating throughout most of the day. Zebras actually spend the vast majority of their time eating and in this post, you will learn exactly what, when, how much, and how often zebras eat.
Zebras are herbivores whose diet consists exclusively of plants. About 90% of a zebra’s diet is made up of grass but they can also eat leaves, twigs, bark, and shrubs. They prefer to eat fresh, green grass but they can also eat and obtain nutrients from old, dry grass, unlike most other herbivores.
Did you know that their diet and ability to eat and obtain nutrients from old, dry grass actually make zebras extremely important for certain African ecosystems? Continue reading to learn exactly why a zebra’s diet is so important for these ecosystems and much more interesting information about the diet of a zebra.
What do Zebras Eat?
There are actually three species of zebras in Africa but their diet is very similar. The three species of zebras are the plains zebra (also known as common zebra or Burchell’s zebra), Grevy’s zebra, and the Cape mountain zebra (also called Hartmann’s mountain zebra).
Grevy’s zebra and the Cape mountain zebra are much rarer than the plains zebra (which coincidentally also has the name common zebra) and they are found in different regions of Africa. Grevy’s zebra is mostly found in Kenya and southern Ethiopia, the Cape mountain zebra is found in certain parts of Namibia and South Africa, and the plains zebra is found in most of eastern and southern Africa.
The diet of the three species of African zebras is very similar. They are all herbivores that eat plants exclusively. About 90% of a zebra’s diet consists of grass but they can also eat other types of plants including leaves, twigs, branches, shrubs, and more.
A zebra’s teeth are large and flat. They are designed perfectly for picking and chewing grass.
Zebras prefer to eat fresh, green grass since it contains the most nutrients but when it comes to obtaining the nutrients from their food, zebras actually have a very efficient digestive system that makes them rather unique from most other large African herbivores. Zebras can eat and obtain nutrients from old, dry grass which most other large herbivores can not, so when there is an area with large quantities of old, dry grass, zebras are often among the first animals to migrate there.
When zebras eat old, dry grass from an area, they make room for new, fresh grass to grow instead and this will automatically attract other large herbivores, so zebras are actually extremely important animals for managing and maintaining certain African ecosystems.
As mentioned, the vast majority of a zebras diet (upwards of 90%) is made up of grass but they can also browse for leaves, twigs, bark, and shrub and they will do this especially during droughts or dry season when fresh, green grass is harder to come across.
Fresh, soft grass is introduced into a zebras’ diet from a very young age. They will begin to eat grass when they are as young as just a few weeks old but they also rely on milk from their mother for the first 7 to 11 months of their lives. After that, their diet will be identical to that of the fully grown zebras and consist mostly of grass with some leaves, twigs, shrubs, and other plants.
How Much do Zebras Eat?
Zebras have a digestion system that allows them to obtain nutrients even from old, dry grass. Most other herbivores’ digestive systems are nowhere near as efficient as zebras’ when it comes to this, so zebras will often be the first animals to migrate to an area with large quantities of dry, old grass and as they eat it, they will make room for new, fresh grass to grow which will not only benefit the zebras but also attract many species of other herbivores that rely on the fresh grass for nutrients.
One place where a zebra’s digestive system lacks, however, is that while they can obtain some nutrients from many types of plants, including old and dry ones, they are not able to obtain them very efficiently and are therefore forced to spend the vast majority of their time grazing and eating.
Zebras spend upwards of 19 hours per day grazing and eating grass and for that reason, their primary habitats include open savanna, shrubland, and grassland since these habitats usually contain bountiful amounts of fresh grass or other nutritious plants for the zebras to eat.
How much zebras eat depends largely on what types of plants are available to them so it varies greatly from region to region. Fresh grass contains significantly more nutrients than dry, old grass so, in areas where the zebras have access to plenty of fresh and green grass, they do not have to eat as much as in areas where they are forced to eat old and dry grass.
Zebras are also highly dependent on water and they need to be close to water holes, rivers, or other sources of water at all times. Zebras need to drink water every day and Zebra mothers with foal usually need to drink water twice a day and when they drink, they will drink upwards of a gallon (almost 4 liters) of water.
When and How Often do Zebras Eat?
Zebras are actually active both during the day and during the night, so many sources categorize them as both diurnal and nocturnal.
Zebras do, however, seem to be most active during the day so this is also when they eat the most but since they spend upwards of 19 hours eating per day, they do so both during the day and during the night.
Zebras are highly social creatures that usually stay together in groups called dazzles (or zeals or herds). This provides them with several advantages including increased protection against predators.
Staying together in groups also provides zebras with increased safety from predators when they eat. Zebras will usually take turns when they eat and you will often see a dazzle of zebras where some of them are eating while others are looking out for predators.
Zebras can also sometimes stay together with other herbivores such as wildebeests or giraffes. This behavior requires areas with large amounts of food to support the many animals. Staying together like this also significantly reduces the risk of being hunted by large predators such as lions, hyenas, and African wild dogs who will usually go for animals that have been separated from their group since they are much less dangerous for the predators to hunt and much easier to kill.
Staying in groups, both with other zebras and other large herbivores is a great strategy for protection against large predators since keeping their heads close to the ground when eating makes them significantly more vulnerable to predators since they are not able to look out for them.
Recommended Children’s Book About African Wildlife
If you have kids who like African wildlife and are looking for a book to read with them, or if you are interested in an easy-to-read book full of fascinating information and great photos, I can recommend a great book that I bought recently.
The book I want to recommend is called The Ultimate Book of African Animals by National Geographic Kids. When I first ordered it, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was very pleasantly surprised when I opened it.
The book contains so much fun and interesting information about all our favorite animals from Africa and a lot you probably didn’t even know existed. From tiny lizards to massive mammals, this book covers them all and has beautiful photos of the animals in action.
You can buy the book on Amazon at the link below. It is an affiliate link, so I will earn a commission if you choose to use it.