There are all kinds of explanations out there for why zebras have stripes, ranging from tricking lions to putting off bugs. A new study helps clarify the situation: Zebras' stripes appear to be linked to temperature, National Geographic reports. Zebras living in warmer temperatures have more stripes than their cousins in colder weather, and researchers wanted to find out why. Investigating 16 different zebra populations, they looked at 29 features of their various environments, from soil to disease prevalence. Seeking a link between these features and the zebras' various stripe patterns, they found the strongest connection involved temperature. The link was so strong that scientists, armed with temperature data, were able to predict stripe patterns among other zebra populations.
One reason for the connection might be that the way air interacts with the different colors could help keep zebras cool. Because they're not so efficient at digesting food, zebras have to keep eating—under a hot sun—more often than other animals, making cooling important, LiveScience reports. The stripes may also keep away disease-carrying bugs, who like hot areas and don't like stripes. The specifics remain unclear, but the study sheds some light on the subject. "What we really feel is important about our study is that most studies so far have only taken one hypothesis and studied it by itself," a researcher tells ABC News. "We made an effort to throw some of these ideas against each other.” One thing that seems clear: Stripe patterns aren't connected to the local lion population. (Here's more evidence the stripes are there to deter biting flies.)