Albinism is a congenital disease that causes a partial or complete loss of pigmentation in animals or even humans. A genetic mutation starts in the utero, which prevents melanin production, responsible for the development of skin, fur, and eye color. The absence of melanin to some animals makes them appear all-white, often with pinkish or pale blue eyes.
Any animal can have albinism. Albinism is often inherited from parents’ genetic mutations. Melanocytes produce melanin, and these melanocytes or specialized cells are present but not fully functional in albino mammals.
In some cultures, albino animals are considered sacred or auspicious; however, research suggests that some albino animals have difficulty in the wild; that is why they appear to be fewer in number.
Not all white animals have albinism.
Some albino animals appear not entirely white because they can produce other pigments in addition to melanin. And some albino mammals may appear to have color if their melanin-making genes haven’t been totally damaged. Some white-skinned animals are suffering from other conditions like leucism and isabelline. The difference can be determined through the eyes-albino animals have pink or light blue eyes.
Some animals exhibit fair genes but not inhibiting color, like Polar bears, Kermode bears (spirit bears), and Scandinavians. Also, there are some disorders in animals that affect their pigmentation to a different extent.
There are varying degrees of coloration in albinism, ranging from coppery through to very white. There are some people and animals that are only white at the warmest points of their bodies.
Albino animals appearing white or colorless are not safe in the wild, unlike other animal species. The colors in a particular animal’s body are not just for beauty purposes, but they use it to protect themselves, like mimicking its environment to hide from the predators. Some animals use their color to attract a potential mate for the reproduction of their species.
Albino animals are easily seen and noticed. An albino predator like a snake can quickly be seen by its prey, making a hasty and timely retreat. A snow-white peacock cannot attract a female due to the absence of the bright purple, blue, and green feathers. This causes albinos fewer in number. In evolution, their condition stands to their disadvantage in many ways.
Usually, albinos have poor eyesight, causing disadvantages when hunting their prey or escaping from their predators or avoiding dangers. For instance, Albino alligators make an obvious target for predators and are often eaten before reaching adulthood.
Dark pigments like melanin not only adds color to an animal’s body but also helps protect skin and eyes from overexposure to sunlight. Many albino animals are more prone to retinal damage and melanomas. In the case of some albino reptile species that bask in the sun to warm themselves, sunlight may quickly prove fatal.
Besides these advantages brought about by being albinos of some animals, poachers are also another threat. Albino animals and other seemingly unusual wildlife are beautiful to poachers seeking to capitalize on the booming demand for exotic species or products from rare animals.
Some albino animals are captured and sent to zoos for protection. The well-known albino zoo animals were Snowflake, a gorilla featured in National Geographic magazine who died from skin cancer in 2003.
Albino animals are high priced in the black market and are favored by trophy hunters because of their rarity. Besides the poachers, the hunters are so enticed with albino mammals like deer and bears. That is why several states in the US prohibit the hunting of those animals, especially albinos.
On the brighter side, some albinos find success in the wild, the thriving population of nearly a hundred albino squirrels in Olney, Illinois. This has brought pride to the town, and so the residents were encouraged to feed them, and there were laws passed to protect them from being hit by vehicles.
Naturally, albino animals fare far better in captivity, as they can be protected, properly nourished, and be safe from both poachers and predators.