How do you tell an albino gorilla from other members of his species? Perhaps, because he sports a dapper white coat? Albinism in animals and humans is associated with a number of defects such as photophobia and pertains to a complete absence of melanin, resulting in little to no color in their skin, hair and eyes. It is so rare that to date there’s only one albino gorilla on record. But albinism is not the only condition that whitens an animal's appearance.
Leucism v. Albinism
Leucism is a condition where there is a partial loss of pigmentation in an animal resulting in white, pale or patchy coloration of the skin, hair, feathers and scales.
Dissimilar to albinism, it is caused by a reduction in multiple types of pigment, not just melanin. So in contrast to albinos, most leucitic animals have normal colored eyes. Albinos have pink eyes while the iris pigmentation of leucistic birds remains dark.
Most albino birds die soon after fledging, primarily as a consequence of their poor eyesight, and albino birds are not thought to progress to adulthood in the wild.
One completely white Swedish moose recently garnered celebrity status after a local politician captured video footage of it wandering through rivers in the Värmland region of Sweden.
Despite the animal's white-washed appearance, its coloring does not result from albinism. Moose with bright white fur more commonly obtain this feature from a recessive gene that causes the animal to grow white with specks of brown — a condition that derives from leucism.
Differing from albinos, there appears to be more sightings of leucitic animals [like giraffes] over the course of the last few years. In fact, there were two sightings recently in Kenya and Tanzania. The very first reports of a white giraffe in the wild was reported in January 2016 in Tarangire National park, Tanzania; a second was again reported in Ishaqbini conservancy, Garissa county, Kenya.
The Hirola Conservation Programme (HCP) is a non-governmental organization based in Garissa County, Kenya. Dr. Abdullahi Ali notes the enthusiasm that has grown among locals in spotting these giraffes in their neighboring areas.
"Nature is always stunning and continue to surprise humanity! These rare snow white giraffes shocked many locals including myself but these gave us renewed energy to protect and save our unique wildlife. I am positive these rare giraffes will change the perception of outsiders regarding north eastern Kenya in which many people have negative perceptions,” noted Ali.
The degree of leucism in birds varies depending on the bird’s genetic makeup. Those that show only white patches or sections of leucistic feathers – often in symmetrical patterns – are often called pied or piebald birds, while birds with fully white plumage are referred to as leucistic birds.
While leucism in birds does not appear as much in the wild, it has been spotted more often in captive and exotic birds deliberately bred to encourage this type of genetic mutation. Many of these all-white birds [like the peacock below] are present in exotic bird collections in aviaries, botanical gardens, zoos and private collections.
Where can you find them?
If you'd like to seek out some white animals on your own, there are a few well-known facilities to check out. The California Academy of Sciences has an albino alligator that goes by the name Claude.
Also, the San Francisco Zoo has American white pelicans and Chilean flamingos (whose feathers would be much less pink if it weren’t for their diet!). Or just head outside and keep an eye out for a pair of cooing white morning doves. Yep, they're leucitic too!
Lastly, meet the largest white animal on Earth! This is Migaloo, a white humpback whale residing in the waters off eastern Australia. Thinking this one should be called, "White Lightening". . . don't you agree?
Primary Source: Leucism