Animals

Albino animals, explained

Albino animals don't have it easy; their whiteness makes them prime targets for predators.Sunday, March 10, 2019

By Jani Actman
An albino North American porcupine at the Nebraska Wildlife Rehab, Inc. shows its quills.
view gallery

Although rare in nature, albino animals have been spotted everywhere from the skies to the seas. These unique creatures have partial or complete loss of pigmentation, hence their pale skin tone compared to other members of their species. Even though the birth of an albino animal is considered a sacred or auspicious event in some cultures, research suggests that some albino animals have difficulty in the wild.

What is albinism?

In mammals, albinism occurs when an individual inherits one or more mutated genes from both parents that interfere with the body’s production of melanin, the main pigment that determines the colour of skin, fur, and eyes. The production of melanin occurs within melanocytes, specialized cells that are present but not fully functional in albino mammals.

Non-mammal animals can also be albino, but because they can produce other pigments in addition to melanin, they may not appear fully white. Even albino mammals can show some colour if their melanin-making genes haven’t been totally damaged.

It’s important to note that not all white animals are albino. Some animals are simply light-skinned, or they might suffer from other conditions, such as leucism and isabellinism. To tell the difference between an albino animal and one without the disease, look at the eyes: blood vessels normally masked by pigment show through in albino creatures, making their eyes pinkish in colour.

Surviving with albinism

Albino wildlife may face obstacles in nature. They often have poor eyesight, which puts them at a disadvantage when hunting for food and avoiding danger. In some cases they have trouble finding a mate, and their inability to camouflage themselves makes them vulnerable to predators. Take albino alligators, for instance, who make such an obvious target for predators that they’re often eaten before they reach adulthood.

Albino animals and other unusually pale wildlife are also more vulnerable to poachers looking to capitalize on booming demand for exotic pets or products derived from rare creatures. The threat to these animals is so real that a nonprofit bought an island off Indonesia just so that it could build a sanctuary there for an albino orangutan, who will be protected by security guards nonstop when she moves there in June 2019. Many albino animals are also sent to zoos for protection. One of the most well-known albino zoo animals was Snowflake, a gorilla featured in National Geographic magazine who died from skin cancer in 2003.

In addition to poachers, some trophy hunters also favor the rare. Albino deer are so enticing to hunters, for example, that several U.S. states prohibit them from being hunted.

Some albino creatures do find success in the wild, however. In Olney, Illinois, there’s a thriving population of nearly a hundred albino squirrels. The town is so proud of them that it encourages residents to feed them and has passed laws to protect them from being hit by vehicles.