Medical Research Council - London Institute of Medical Sciences

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Safety in Stripes

Stripes reduce the risk of painful horsefly bites

17 February 2019

Safety in Stripes

Body painting is a culturally significant practice in many indigenous tribes, and recent research suggests it could have hidden health benefits. While specific patterns vary widely between tribes, pale stripes are a common feature, as pictured here in examples from Africa. Inspired by studies suggesting that zebra stripes may help deter biting flies from landing, researchers investigated whether striped body paintings could have similar advantages for humans. To test this, they used plastic mannequins, with and without striped patterns, and coated them with a sticky substance to trap horseflies (Tabanidae) landing on each model type. As predicted, horseflies appeared to avoid stripes: over several weeks in the field, a plain brown model attracted 10 times more flies than one with white stripes. Although the patterns of body paintings are clearly culturally-driven, a reduced risk of painful horsefly bites, and potential disease transmission from other insects, could be a welcome by-product of these traditions.

Written by Emmanuelle Briolat

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