Do Zebras Eat Meat? [Answered & Explained]

Grazing herbivores such as the rhinoceros, elephant, and wildebeest can be found in African grasslands and savannas.

Zebras are found here as well. They help to clear tall grasses so these animals can graze upon the shorter vegetation.

Zebras do not eat meat. They are foraging herbivores that graze up to 18 hours a day primarily on fibrous, low-nutrient grasses. Depending upon the species and gender, zebras have 36 to 42 mature teeth that continuously grow. These strong teeth file down as they tear, chew, and grind grasses. Zebras use hindgut fermentation to break down plant material for digestion, eating large volumes to get adequate nutrition.

Table of Contents

What Zebras Eat

Zebras belong to the Equidae family and are close relatives of domesticated horses. The three main species are the following:

  • Plains zebra (E. quagga): lives in grasslands of southern and eastern Africa
  • Grevy’s zebra (E. grevyi): lives in arid and sparsely wooded and arid parts of Kenya and Ethiopia
  • Mountain zebra (E. zebra): lives in dry plains of Namibia and western South Africa

Zebras are foraging herbivores, primarily consuming long grasses, feeding for up to 18 hours a day.

As zebras eat long grasses, they clear the area, leaving short grasses in place for other herbivores, such as buffalo, antelope, and wildebeest, that prefer the shorter variety.

While grasses are 90% or more of zebras’ main food source, in times of low supply, they will also eat bark, shoots, herbs, branches, shrubs, saplings, or small trees.

Grasses that are eaten by zebras depend on the habitat of the animal. For example, red grass is found in the African savannas, bermuda grass grows along river beds, and red oat grass is found in mountainous areas.

In captivity, such as in zoos, zebras are fed timothy hay and specialized food pellets to ensure that they get the nutrients they need.

Foals (baby zebras) nurse milk from their mothers for about one year. However, they start to eat grass as young as one week, when teeth start to come in.

Around 7 to 11 months, the foal weans from its mother as it transitions to a grass diet.

This video shows some zebras eating long grass:

Zebra Teeth And Digestion

Zebras have functional teeth designed for eating plant materials, as well as a specialized digestion system for processing food.

Zebra Teeth

Zebras have two sets of teeth in their lives. 

Foals are born without teeth. They begin to develop their first set of deciduous (milk) teeth about one week after birth until they have a full set of 24 baby teeth (12 incisors and 12 premolars).

These teeth generally are all in by 9 months of age.

The mature, adult, teeth gradually grow in, pushing the baby teeth out. A mature zebra has a total of 36 to 42 adult teeth by the time it is about 5 years old. 

The final total number of teeth depends upon species and sex, with males overall having more. For example, the grevy’s zebras have two additional premolar teeth.

Type Of Teeth

Zebras have sharp teeth for grazing purposes, allowing them to pull and chew tough plant material. They have sharp, chiseled lower and upper incisors to cut vegetation. 

Their canines are not used for biting or killing prey and are typically found only in males. These sharp teeth are used for fighting to gain dominance to bite at other males. 

The zebra’s 12 large premolars and 12 molar teeth, in the cheek areas, grind up the vegetation with a wide, flat surface.  

The zebra’s adult teeth are hypsodont, high-crowned with enamel extending past the gum line. 

The premolar and molar teeth also have a layer of cementum, making them stronger. 

The teeth continuously grow, grinding down through the act of chewing.

Sometimes, zebras will develop teeth around 6 to 10 months of age. These teeth, called wolf teeth, are located in front of the first upper premolar, sometimes on only one side, and serve no purpose.

Zebra Digestion

Zebras consume grasses that other grazers do not eat, processing the material with a specialized digestive system.

Fibrous, Low-Nutrient Grasses

Short grasses tend to be higher in nutrients and protein, making them a desirable food source for many grazers. 

However, zebras cannot digest this type of vegetation easily and opt for less nutrient and protein-dense grasses. These grasses are able to grow long in droughts and arid conditions.

In arid areas, zebras are capable of digesting coarse and fibrous plant material that other grazing animals won’t eat.

This leaves the zebra with ample food supply since other animals opt for the short and nutritious grasses.

Digestive System

Zebras are perissodactyls, odd-numbered toed animals, with single-chambered stomachs, that digest their food in a cecum. 

The cecum is a pouch-like sac at the end of the small intestine, capable of digesting only plant material, and not meat. 

This hindgut fermentation is where food passes through quickly, and cellulose is broken down with symbiotic bacteria, transforming the material into volatile fatty acids (VFAs). 

The VFAs are then absorbed through the gut wall and processed in the colon.

This type of digestion is not as effective as animals with chambered stomachs, and therefore the zebra consumes more fibrous plant material to get enough nutrition. 

In Conclusion

Zebras are foraging herbivores, eating primarily tall grasses. They do not eat meat, since their digestive system cannot process it.  

Adult zebras have 36 to 42 mature teeth for tearing, cutting, and grinding food. In times of grass scarcity, zebras will eat other vegetation such as bark, saplings, herbs, and shrubs.

The food passes into a one-chambered stomach with a cecum that uses digestive enzymes to break down cellulose.

Since tall grasses are fibrous and low in nutrients, zebras spend the majority of their day grazing to obtain enough nutrition.

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