Any animal species that produce melanin is capable of having albinism. Albinism does not only occur in humans, it occurs in mammals in general and also in some non-mammals. Although it is common in humans, it is less so in animals. Despite this rarity, albino animals have been located everywhere – whether its birds in the sky, fishes in the sea, reptiles in the bush or everyday pets at home. Albino animals may have either a partial lack of pigmentation or a complete one. Either way, they have a unique skin tone when compared to other animals. And although this uniqueness may make them quite cute to look at, it also presents a lot of challenges to them that you may not be aware of. These challenges range from the inability to survive fully on their own to becoming an easy target for potential predators. However, there are several interesting facts you may not know about albinism in animals. So why don’t we find out?
What Is Albinism in Animals?
First, in case you may be wondering, let us find out what albinism is in animals. This condition is as a result of the absence of the coloration or pigmentation in an animal. This lack of pigmentation is caused when a particular animal inherits one or several mutated genes from its parents. This means that albinism is inherited. These mutated genes end up interfering with the production of melanin by their bodies. Melanin is the main pigment that is responsible for determining the color of the animal’s skin, eyes, and fur. Its absence in animals results in a characteristic red or pink eyes. Melanin production occurs within specialized cells called melanocytes. Although these cells are present in albino animals, they are not fully functional. It is important to keep in mind that not all white-colored animals have albinism. Some animals only have naturally light skin. Other animals could also have light skins because they may be suffering from conditions like isabellinism and leucism. Thus, the best way to tell the difference between an animal with albinism and an animal with light skin is this – red or pink eyes. A lack of pigmentation in the iris allows the blood vessels in the retina to be seen. Alright now, it is time to learn about some interesting facts about albinism in animals.
The only difference between albino animals and other animals is the color of the skin, fur, and eyes. Albino animals appear like the all-white version of their ‘more regular’ siblings. As mentioned earlier, there are other animals that appear all-white but only because they are light-skinned or suffering from some disease. The key to distinguishing between animals with albinism and other light-skinned animals is the color of the eyes which appears red or pinkish. Thus, the polar bear, for example, does not have albinism unless it has red or pinkish eyes. Albinism is not limited only to animals with fur and skin. Fishes, birds, insects, and reptiles also have them. And here also, the appearance is the same – white scales or feathers and red eyes. However, although the case remains the same for amphibians, not all white-colored amphibians are albino animals. Some are amelanistic not albino. The difference is that amelanistic animals do not completely lack in all color pigments.
Because of the lack of melanin in their bodies and the resulting lack of pigmentation in the iris, the blood vessels in the retina become visible. What this causes commonly is poor eyesight. This condition affects the ability of albino animals to maintain focus, to remain perceptive in-depth, and to track other animals. Some animals, however, may have pale blue eyes. This is due to other biological processes that generate color. As a result of albinism, the center of the retina is not well developed and there is a shortage in rod cells. This affects their vision. The case is not the same for birds though. Birds have cone retina. This means that their vision is not as affected as it is in mammals. Added to this condition, albino animals are prone to contracting skin cancer or are prone to sun damage. This is because of the lack of melanin. Melanin blocks the sun’s ultra-violet rays with the help of melanosomes. Melanosomes allow only the beneficial frequencies from the sun to reach the body. But because these are lacking, harmful electromagnetic radiation from the sun is not blocked and the skin is left unprotected. Some research has shown that albinism in animals also causes hearing impairments especially in cats, rats, mice, and guinea pigs. In fishes, another study has shown that albinism is responsible for a reduction in viability. According to this research, only twenty-nine embryos live to maturity from eight hundred albino embryos. This is without the presence of predators and with sufficient supply of food and controlled temperatures. Thus, researchers have labeled albinism in fishes as a semi-lethal mutation.
In wildlife, the color of an animal plays a huge role in its survival. There are several examples of animals that change color or camouflage themselves just to avoid been noticed. Color helps animals both to hunt and avoid being hunted. The white-washed appearance of albino animals makes them an easy target to spot. Thus, a lion will easily spot a white deer on a mountain than a brown one. To make matters worse, albino animals find it difficult to mix with the pack. Thus, they are mostly left alone by themselves, and that leaves them open and vulnerable. The fact that they have poor eyesight makes it difficult to either spot preys and dash for safety or spot game to hunt. In some cases, albino animals find it difficult to find mates. This adds to their vulnerability because no one wants to hang out with the weird-looking white guy. Some albino animals hardly make to adulthood without being eaten. Typical examples are albino alligators. They are usually given below thirty percent chance of reaching adulthood without being eaten by predators. As if the danger from fellow animals is not enough, albino animals are also vulnerable to poachers looking for exotic or rare-looking animals to capture and sell. Albino animals are considered prized animals that fetch a lot of many because most many buyers want to own a rare-looking pet. They are also said to be preferred a lot by scientists for laboratory research. Therefore, many animal poachers mistake albino animals for a good pay-day and thus target them to capture and sell. Just behind the poachers, are the game hunters looking for a ‘trophy animal’. These hunters look out for the rare-looking white animals. The good news is that people are gradually waking up and becoming more conscious about protecting albino animals. It is reported that albino deer are so sought after by game hunters that several states in the U.S. have banned their hunting.
As mentioned earlier, an albino offspring inherits the mutated genes from its parents; most prominently the parent having the damaged tyrosinase. Tyrosinase is responsible for melanin production. Melanin is responsible for pigmentation or coloring. These conditions notwithstanding, it perfectly possible for a normal animal to give birth to an albino animal. On the vice versa, it is also very possible for an albino animal to give birth to a normal animal. Other environmental factors can cause normal animals to give birth to offspring with albinism. With fishes, for example, research has shown that albinism can be caused to eggs exposed to heavy metals like copper, zinc, mercury, and arsenic. Albino birth in mammals is not an uncommon thing. Research shows that albinism occurs once out of every ten thousand mammal births. It is even more common in birds. It is estimated that it in every one thousand, three hundred and sixty-four bird births, one will be an albino. According to further research, the chance of albinism is reduced greatly when there is a spreading out (and therefore a dilution) of the genes pool of a particular species.
Pure Albinism and Partial Albinism
Albino animals have been classified as either pure or partial albinos. Pure albino animals have white skin or fur with pink nails and, pink, red or blue eyes. Partial albinos only have patches of pigmentation. However, classification based only on melanin is only consistent with animals with only one pigment – melanin. Many animals have other pigments aside from melanin and some also possess structural pigments. Thus, birds for example melanin but may still possess structural pigmentation and can therefore not be classified as albinos. Thus, the only defining characteristic of albinism whether pure or partial has to do with the color of the eyes. Some animals have ‘albino’ added to their names although they no not lack melanin. An example is the albino gaur. It has its name because as compared to the other black gaur, the albino gaur is ash-gray in appearance.
In conclusion, albinism in animals, no matter how cute they make them look, put them at several risks. Contrary to what many people think animal albinos are more common. These are ‘everyday’ animals with deficits in pigmentation just like humans. Albinism can affect any animal that produces melanin. Awareness must be increased for their protection.
Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.