Equus quagga burchellii


Kingdom Animalia

Burchell's zebra in Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, Germany. Courtesy by Alexander Lang. Copyright: Ausgerottete Arten.

Burchell's zebra in Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin.

Courtesy by Alexander Lang. © Ausgerottete Arten. All rights reserved.

Phylum Chordata 
Class Mammalia 
Order Perissodactyla
Family Equidae
Genus Equus
Species Equus quagga
Subspecies Equus quagga burchellii
Authority (Gray, 1824)
IUCN Status Rediscovered (RE), Year assessed: 2010
IUCN Status Not Evaluated
English Name Burchell’s Zebra
African Name Bontkwagga
Dutch Name Burchell Zebra, Dauw
French Name Zèbre de Burchell
German Name Burchellzebra
Spanish Name Cebra de Burchell

Asinus burchellii Gray, 1825; Equus burchellii (Gray, 1825); Equus burchellii burchellii (Gray, 1825); Equus burchellii antiquorum (Smith, 1841); Equus quagga antiquorum (Smith, 1841)

Taxonomy There was some taxonomic debate over the correct specific name for the plains zebra. Research has now firmly established that the Extinct Quagga is a subspecies of the Plains Zebra (Rau 1978, Higuchi et al. 1984, George and Ryder 1986, Leonard et al. 2005). The scientific name of the Plains Zebra has been changed from Equus burchellii into Equus quagga. Groves and Bell (2004) recognized six subspecies of the Plains Zebra (Equus quagga), based on coat patterns, skull metrics, and the presence or absence of a mane and of the infundibulum on the lower incisors (intergrades are observed). A recent genetic study analysed 17 Plains Zebra populations, representing five of the six subspecies recognized by these authors (Lorenzen et al. 2008). The study found very little differentiation among populations. In fact, populations across the entire species distribution range were less differentiated than Namibian populations of Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra (Equus zebra hartmannae). The five sampled Plains Zebra subspecies, which included the extinct Quagga, could not be distinguished with the genetic markers used and no genetic structuring was found indicative of distinct taxonomic units. The molecular data represented a genetic cline and was differentiated along an east-to-south gradient in agreement with the progressive increase in body size and reduction in stripes towards the south. This is consistent with the overlapping morphological parameters and geographical distribution of subspecies reported in literature. Hence, the subspecies splits based on the morphological cline may be arbitrary, but are useful from a management perspective. (Hack & Lorenzen, 2008)

Their size is large. Three or four stripes (very rarely two or five) meet (or sometimes do not quite meet) the median ventral line between the elbow and the stripe that bends back to form the “saddle” of the lumbar region. The colour is ochery or off-white, but never pure white. The shadow stripes are usually well marked, and the leg stripes are absent or poor, and almost never complete to hooves. The mane is well developed. (Moelman, 2002)

Range & Habitat Formerly the Burchell's zebra ranged north of the Vaal/Orange river system, extending northwest via southern Botswana to Etosha and the Kaokoveld, southeast to Swasiland and Kwazulu-Natal. Now extinct in the middle portion, but surviving at the northwestern and souteastern end of the distribution. (Groves and Bell, 2004

Taxidermist, Reinhold Rau (Quagga Project committee member) and others don't believe that there was ever a population of plains zebras anywhere, where all individuals looked more or less like the type specimen, which naturalist William John Burchell (1782-1863) had brought to England. It is a fact that in southern plains zebra populations the variation in the extent of the striped area and the basic colour from individual to individual is great. This is true in all the populations from Etosha in the west to Zululand in the east. It is even possible that Burchell purposely picked a specimen that was somewhat different from most of the group from which he took it. Hunters frequently go for the unusual! In other words, Reinhold Rau believes that in Burchell's time, and now still, individuals that match the description of the "true" Burchell's zebra did and do occur occasionally in any of the southern Plains zebra populations. Most of the zebras in the Quagga Project could qualify as good examples of the burchellii "subspecies".

History & Population In 1810 naturalist William John Burchell embarked upon his first expedition, which he documented in his 2-volume work ‘Travels in the interior of southern Africa’. He returned to England in 1815 with over 50,000 specimens, many of which he donated to the British Museum, Natural History (now known as the Natural History Museum, London). Unfortunately, many of these specimens were damaged whilst in storage at the British Museum. This led to a dispute between Burchell and the museum authorities, with much resentment on both sides. Following this quarrel, the keeper of the museum’s Zoological Collections named Burchell’s zebra ‘Asinus burchellii’ (Asinus is from the Latin meaning ass or fool). (Oxford University of Natural History, 2005)

Like other plain zebras, Burchell's Zebras must have populated the African plains in impressive numbers. Associations of thousands have been reported. The wild herds have disappeared by 1910, and the last known individual died in the Berlin Zoo in 1918. The causes of extinction would have been overhunting, cultivation of land and competition with livestock, particularly in periods of drought. The revision of the subspecies of Equus quagga (Groves & Bell, 2004) showed that the Burchell's zebra Equus quagga burchellii still exists in Kwazulu-Natal and in Etosha.


Rau (1978) has pointed out how little evidence there is for “the extinct true Burchell’s Zebra”; the distinguishing feature from extant forms (that is, the failure of the flank stripes to meet the median ventral line at all) is sometimes seen in Kwazulu zebras, as well as in the type (from the Kuruman district), and in a zoo specimen known only to have been from Botswana. There is as little evidence that such a feature typified the zebras from the Free State and that it was confined to them. According to Reinhold Rau could most of the zebras in the Quagga Project qualify as good examples of the burchellii "subspecies". One of them is the stallion "Etienne", which can be seen in the photo here. 

Photo: This stallion "Etienne", was born on 14th October 1998 at Groote Schuur Estate. It is one of the most quagga-like individuals in the six breeding groups of the Quagga Project. It looks like the preserved museum specimens of the Burchell's zebra. Courtesy by Reinhold Rau. Copyright © The Quagga Project. All rights reserved.

Careful study of the original zebra populations in Zululand and Swaziland, and of skins harvested on game farms in Zululand and Natal, has revealed that a small certain proportion shows similarity to what we now regard as typical "burchellii". (Groves and Bell, 2004)

Photo: Burchell's zebra in the Etosha-National Park in Namibia. Photographed by Freddy Weber in August 2004. The copyright holder of this work allows anyone to use it for any purpose including unrestricted redistribution, commercial use, and modification.

The type localities of the subspecies Equus quagga burchellii and Equus quagga antiquorum (Damara zebra) are so close to each other that the two are in fact one, and that therefore the older of the two names should take precedence over the younger. They therefore say that the correct name for the southernmost subspecies must be "burchellii" not "antiquorum". (Groves and Bell, 2004 

Groves and Bell (2004) revised the subspecies of Equus quagga. They conclude that "the extinct true Burchell's zebra" is a phantom. The subspecies Equus quagga burchellii still exists in Kwazulu-Natal and in Etosha: it is the geographically intervening population that is extinct, not a distinct subspecies as such. 

Museum Specimens The National Museum of Natural History ‘Naturalis’ in Leiden (the Netherlands) has 3 skins of the Burchell’s Zebra. All are from the first half of the 19th Century. You can see pictures and information about this specimens at 300 Pearls - Burchell's zebra - Genetically alive but hiding. Another specimen can be found in the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, Germany. Do you know more museum specimens? Please send me e-mail!
Relatives The other subspecies of the Plain Zebra (Equus quagga), including the extinct Quagga (Equus quagga quagga). The other subspecies (Groves & Bell, 2004) are: Equus quagga chapmani, Equus quagga crawshayi, Equus quagga boehmi, and Equus quagga borensis. The completely maneless Somali population may represent a seventh subspecies: Equus quagga isabella (Ziccardi, 1958). This subspecies may be valid, but at present we have no evidence that it is. 

Leiden National Museum of Natural History (the Netherlands).

300 Pearls - Museum highlights of natural diversity. (English, French, Hungarian, Dutch)

300 Pearls - Burchell's zebra - Genetically alive but hiding.

The Quagga Project.

Do you know more websites or have you more information about the Burchell's zebra?

Please send me e-mail!

Articles C. P. Groves & Catherine H. Bell. 2004. New investigations on the taxonomy of the zebras genus Equus, subgenus Hippotigris. Mammalian Biology. 69: 182-196.

Duncan, P. (ed.). 1992. Zebras, Asses, and Horses: an Action Plan for the Conservation of Wild Equids. IUCN/SSC Equid Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.

Higuchi et al. 1987. Mitochondrial DNA of the Extinct Quagga: Relatedness and Extent of Postmortem Change. Journel of Molecular Evolution 25:283-287.

Moelman, P.D. 2002. Equids. Zebras, Assess and Horses. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Equid Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. (http://www.iucn.org/themes/ssc/pubs/sscaps.htm#Equids2002

References George Jr., M. and O.A. Ryder. 1986. Mitochondrial DNA evolution in the genus Equus. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 3: 535-546.

Groves, C.P. & Catherine H. Bell. 2004. New investigations on the taxonomy of the zebras genus Equus, subgenus Hippotigris. Mammalian Biology. 69: 182-196.

Hack, M.A & Lorenzen, E. 2008. Equus quagga. In: IUCN 2008. 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 18 December 2008.

Higuchi et al. 1987. Mitochondrial DNA of the Extinct Quagga: Relatedness and Extent of Postmortem Change. Journal of Molecular Evolution 25:283-287.

Leonard, J. A., Rohland, N., Glabermann, S., Fleischer, R., Caccone, G. and Hofreiter, M. (2005) A rapid loss of stripes: the evolutionary origin of the extinct quagga. Biology Letters , 1 (3), 291-295. [pdf]

Lorenzen E.D., Arctander P., and Siegismund H.R. 2008. High variation and very low differentiation in wide ranging plains zebra (Equus quagga): insights from mtDNA and microsatellites. Molecular ecology 17 (12): 2812-24.

Moelman, P.D. 2002. Equids. Zebras, Assess and Horses. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Equid Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. (http://www.iucn.org/themes/ssc/pubs/sscaps.htm#Equids2002

Oxford University of Natural History. William Burchell - Life History. <http://www.oum.ox.ac.uk/zoocolls/burchell/burchome.htm>. Downloaded on 21 September 2005.

Rau, R.E. 1978. Additions to the revised list of preserved material of the extinct Cape Colony Quagga and notes on the relationship and distribution of southern Plains Zebras. Annals of the South African Museum, 77, 27–45.

Last updated: 3th March 2010.

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