Quagga: Decoding the Mysteries of a Lost Species

Zebra (Equus quagga) at El Karama Ranch, Laikipia County, Kenya

The quagga was an extinct subspecies of plains zebra that was once found in great numbers in South Africa. This unique zebra with distinctive brown and white stripes has captured the imagination of many, but there is still much we don’t know about this lost species.

What is the quagga and why is it important?

The quagga (Equus quagga quagga) was a subspecies of the plains zebra that was found in the Cape Province and the southern part of the Orange Free State in South Africa. It had the typical striped coat on the front part of its body, but the stripes faded towards the rear until the hindquarters were almost plain brown.

The last wild quagga died in 1878, and the last captive individual died at the Amsterdam Zoo on August 12, 1883. This makes the quagga the first extinct animal to have its DNA sequenced, showing a close relationship between the quagga and the plains zebra.


Understanding more about this lost subspecies can provide insights into zebra evolution, inform conservation efforts for existing zebra populations, and serve as a symbol of our responsibility to protect biodiversity.

The quagga: A brief overview of this extinct subspecies

The name “quagga” comes from the Khoikhoi word for “zebra”. Early Dutch settlers in South Africa called the quagga quaggas to distinguish them from other species of zebra. Scientists originally classified the quagga as Equus quagga – the same species as the plains zebra.

The quagga was most likely a subspecies of the plains zebra that evolved to adapt to more arid environments. It had a stockier body and was distinguished from other zebras by its unique coloration: reddish-brown hindquarters and white legs, with stripes only on the head, neck and upper body.

Only one photographed alive quagga is known, which was a mare at the Zoological Society of London’s Zoo. That photo, along with 23 known stuffed and mounted specimens, are the only remnants we have of how the quagga looked in real life.

Understanding the significance of the quagga in natural history

The quagga has intrigued scientists since its extinction. Early studies of preserved specimens focused on deciphering its taxonomy and evolutionary origins. The quagga was the first extinct animal to have its DNA extracted from museum specimens in 1984.

This DNA analysis, along with evidence from the fossil record, confirmed the quagga as a distinct subspecies of the plains zebra. The quagga likely evolved on the savannas of southern Africa over thousands of years alongside other zebras. It filled an important niche in the ecosystem and coexisted with a range of wildlife.

Its sudden extinction robbed the region of an integral part of its natural heritage. The quagga serves as an early warning about the devastating impact of indiscriminate hunting and habitat loss. Its unique story has inspired ambitious conservation projects, like The Quagga Project, to use selective breeding of plains zebras to bring back quagga-like phenotypes.

Deciphering the taxonomy of Equus quagga

The plains zebra was first named Equus quagga by Dutch zoologist Pieter Boddaert in 1785. Over the next 150 years, different zebra populations across Africa were classified into as many as 11 subspecies of Equus quagga. These include the quagga (Equus quagga quagga), Burchell’s zebra (Equus quagga burchellii), and Grant’s zebra (Equus quagga boehmi).

More recently, DNA evidence suggests there are only two subspecies: the quagga and Burchell’s zebra. The quagga and plains zebra show a close genetic relationship, with no more than 2-3% divergence in certain DNA sequences. They were likely the same species with quaggas representing a distinct southern population. Classifying them as the same species (Equus quagga) with different subspecies designations – quagga (E. q. quagga) and Burchell’s zebra (E. q. burchellii) – best fits the DNA evidence.

Quagga and zebra: Exploring the taxonomic relationship

Grants Zebra (equus quagga boehmi)
Grants Zebra (equus quagga boehmi)

Early observers were puzzled by the quagga’s striking similarities to – and differences from – other zebra species. Some even considered the quagga to be a separate species.

Modern genetic analysis confirms that the quagga diverged from a population of Burchell’s zebra. It likely evolved adaptations like a wider jaw, thicker neck, and reduced striping to thrive in drier inland regions of southern Africa.

While the quagga was genetically distinct enough to be designated a subspecies (Equus quagga quagga), it could still interbreed with other zebra subspecies. Its extinction represents the loss of an evolutionarily unique lineage. Recent efforts to selectively breed plains zebras to bring back quagga phenotypes reflect its close taxonomic relationship with other members of Equus quagga.

Highlighting the differences between the quagga and other species of zebra

Several traits set the quagga apart from other zebra species and subspecies, like:

  • Striping pattern: Plain brown hindquarters and white legs, with stripes only on the head, neck and upper half of body.
  • Body shape: Stockier build and wider jaws than the plains zebra.
  • Range: Only in South Africa, while plains and mountain zebras live across East and Southern Africa.
  • Habitat: Arid inland regions, unlike other zebras more adapted to grasslands.

The quagga shared many traits with the plains zebra like having a single foal, living in small family groups, and grazing on grasses and shrubs. However, minor differences in morphology, geographic range, habitat preferences set it apart as a distinct – and now tragically extinct – subspecies.

The evolutionary history of the plains zebra

The ancestors of the modern plains zebra, which includes the quagga, likely diverged from other zebra lineages around 2.5 million years ago. Primitive equids migrated from North America into Africa around 4 million years ago and gradually evolved into zebra species adapted to African grasslands.

Different zebra populations became geographically separated, allowing each group to accumulate subtle genetic differences over thousands of generations. One ancient plains zebra lineage gradually adapted to the drier interior regions of southern Africa and became the quagga.

Modern Burchell’s zebras may have interbred with the quagga, absorbing some of its unique adaptations. Ongoing evolution and adaptation has allowed plains zebras to remain widespread across Africa today, while the quagga was tragically hunted to extinction by the late 1800s.

From quagga to plains zebra: Tracing the lineage

The quagga was previously recognized as a distinct subspecies of plains zebra under the scientific name Equus quagga quagga. It likely evolved from Burchell’s zebra (Equus quagga burchellii) ancestors that migrated south over 120,000 years ago.

These zebras gradually adapted to the arid interior regions of South Africa. Selective pressures led to changes like a wider jaw, thicker neck, reduced striping, and ability to thrive on coarse scrub vegetation. These adaptations distinguished quaggas from their northern zebra relatives but kept them closely related enough to produce fertile hybrids.

Overhunting wiped out the quagga before adaptation and speciation could progress further. However, enough genetic similarity exists between quaggas and other E. quagga subspecies that selective breeding can recreate quagga-like phenotypes – a living legacy of this extinct zebra.

Adaptations in the plains zebra over time

Tracking changes in plains zebra lineages like the quagga reveals how adaptation can shape new subspecies. As ancestral zebras spread south, individuals with traits suited to drier habitats thrived.

Reduced striping increased heat tolerance in arid environments. A stocky build, thicker neck, and wide jaws for chewing scrub vegetation became more common. These gradual adaptations over thousands of generations transformed a population of striped equids into the unique quagga.

The plains zebra continues to evolve. Northern populations have adapted to disease pressures from migrating wildebeest herds. Human pressures currently threaten the survival of all zebra species. But ongoing adaptation may yet ensure the persistence of these iconic striped equids.

Plains zebra vs. quagga: Analyzing differences and misconceptions

Quagga symbolism

It’s easy to confuse the now-extinct quagga with its close cousin, the plains zebra. However, several key physical and geographical differences set them apart:

  • Striping: Plain brown hindquarters distinguish the quagga from the fully striped plains zebra.
  • Range: Only in South Africa, while plains zebras live across East and Southern Africa.
  • Habitat: Quaggas in drier inland regions versus plains zebras on grasslands.
  • Body type: Quaggas have thicker necks and wider jaws than plains zebras.

Early observers – puzzled by those plain brown rear ends – even thought quaggas were a separate species! It’s now clear the quagga was a subspecies of plains zebra uniquely adapted to southern Africa’s arid heartland, though still capable of interbreeding with its northern cousins.

The distinctive stripe patterns: quagga vs. plains zebra

The plains zebra sports the archetypal black and white striped pelt synonymous with zebras. But the now-extinct quagga had a twist on this pattern: stripes only on its head, neck and front half, fading to solid brown hindquarters.

This striking coloration likely served a functional purpose. Reduced striping increased heat tolerance on the southern African plains. All-brown rear ends may have helped camouflage young quagga foals while their mothers grazed.

We can only speculate on the evolutionary pressures that shaped the quagga’s unique stripes. But those faded brown rear ends continue to inspire fascination with this extinct subspecies and serve as a reminder of its distinctive place in the plains zebra lineage.

Physical and behavioral differences between the quagga and plains zebra

While DNA confirms their close relationship, some notable physical and behavioral differences set quaggas apart from other plains zebra subspecies:


  • Stockier body type
  • Wider jaws
  • Thicker neck
  • Faded striping on hindquarters


  • Inhabited drier inland ranges
  • Grazed on coarser scrub vegetation
  • Migration patterns concentrated in southern Africa

These adaptations to hotter, drier habitats distinguish the quagga from its grassland-roaming zebra relatives. Sadly, we can only speculate on unique aspects of quagga social behavior, reproduction, and other traits that disappeared forever when the last captive individual died in 1883.

Quagga symbolism in cultures and its representation

The quagga has come to symbolize many things:

  • A lost heritage and an early conservation wake-up call after its thoughtless extermination.
  • Renewed hope for righting past wrongs through ambitious “rewilding” efforts like The Quagga Project.
  • Humanity’s power to alter – or destroy – the natural world.

The quagga is enshrined as a national symbol in South Africa, imprinted on coins, postage stamps, and the logo of conservation groups. “Quagga Day” on September 23 marks its extinction and ongoing revival efforts.

Recreated quagga-like individuals inspire pride as a living emblem of revival in South Africa and fascination around the world. More than a century after extinction, the quagga continues to captivate imaginations with its symbolic meaning of a species lost but perhaps not forever.

The quagga’s extinction: Causes and lessons learned

The quagga was hunted to extinction in the late 1800s. European settlers killed them for meat, hides, and to preserve grazing pasture for domestic livestock. As wild populations dwindled, hunting pressure decimated the last quagga strongholds.

The quagga vanished from the wild by 1878. The world’s very last captive individual died at Amsterdam Zoo on August 12, 1883. Its death marked the extinction of not just a unique species, but an ancient lineage millions of years in the making.

This sobering loss fueled early conservation efforts. The quagga’s demise taught brutal lessons about mankind’s ability to carelessly wipe out species and inspired reforms to preserve endangered wildlife. More recently, ambitious efforts to selectively breed plains zebras to match quagga genetics and traits offer hope of righting a historic wrong.


The quagga’s story reveals volumes about the resilience of natural selection in shaping new species as well as human folly in carelessly wiping them out. Decoding the mysteries of this extinct zebra has become a symbol of atonement and revival.

Ongoing research and selective breeding efforts shine new light on the quagga’s evolutionary origins and relationship with other zebras. Perhaps one day this lost subspecies will once again thunder across the South African plains – a fitting revival for a unique zebra that has left an outsized

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