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What Causes Albinism in Animals?

By April S. Kenyon
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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Albinism in animals is caused by a lack of melanin, or pigmentation, in the body. Melanin is responsible for the coloration of various parts of the body. If an animal is born with an inability to produce this pigmentation, it is classified as an albino. Albinism in animals is hereditary and occurs in a variety of forms, ranging from complete albinism to partial or patchy albinism. The condition is caused when a recessive gene from each parent is passed on to the offspring.

True albinos completely lack melanin and exhibit completely white or pinkish colored skin or scales with no markings. Animals with this condition have eyes that appear pink or red in color, though the irises of the eye are not really pink, but rather lacking in color. This absence of melanin in the iris causes the blood vessels in the eyes to show through. True albinism in animals also causes other parts of the body to appear a pinkish color, such as the nails, skin or scales.

Partial albinism in animals results when the animal possesses slight pigmentation. Animals that are partially albino often exhibit light blue eyes. They may also show slight color on various parts of the body, though white or pink is the primary color that is present. Albinism in animals can also be dependent upon temperature. The animal may exhibit some color pigmentation on cooler parts of the body, but not on the warmer areas.

Various forms of patchy albinism also occur in animals. This type of albinism is often the result of a lack of certain color pigmentations, but the presence of others. For example, anerythristic albino animals lack red pigmentation. These albino animals often appear bluish-grey in color. Axanthic albinism in animals is the result of a lack of yellow pigmentation.

Tyrosinase is an enzyme in the body that produces melanin. Animals that lack this enzyme are referred to as Tyrosinase-negative albinos, and they usually have cream or pale yellow skin and pink eyes. In contrast, Tyrosinase-positive albinism in animals means the cells in the body are unable to create melanin, but can synthesize tyrosinase. This generally produces a muted lavender color in the animal’s skin and eyes.

Not all animals that are white are truly albinos. The easiest way to determine if an animal with white skin is an albino is to look carefully at the eyes. If the eyes are pink or light blue, the animal is an albino. Leusistic animals are often mistaken for albinos because their skin is mostly white, but they have dark pigmentation present in their eyes and nails.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is albinism in animals?

Albinism in animals is a genetic condition characterized by a lack of melanin, the pigment that gives color to the skin, hair, and eyes. This results in animals with albinism displaying white or pale skin and fur, and often red or light blue eyes, due to the visibility of blood vessels underneath.

How is albinism inherited in animals?

Albinism is typically inherited in an autosomal recessive manner. This means that both parents must carry the gene for albinism and pass it on to their offspring for the condition to manifest. If an animal receives only one copy of the gene, it will be a carrier without showing symptoms of albinism.

Can albinism affect all animal species?

Albinism can occur in virtually all animal species, including mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, and amphibians. The prevalence of albinism varies among species, but it is generally rare due to the recessive nature of the genetic mutation and the reduced survival rate of albino individuals in the wild.

What are the survival challenges for albino animals?

Albino animals often face significant survival challenges, including increased susceptibility to sunburn and skin cancers due to the lack of protective melanin. Their visibility to predators and difficulty in camouflage can lead to a shorter lifespan. Additionally, some may suffer from vision problems, further impacting their ability to survive.

Is albinism in animals the same as leucism?

No, albinism and leucism are different conditions. While albinism is a complete lack of melanin throughout the body, leucism is a partial loss of pigmentation, which can result in white, pale, or patchy coloration of the skin, fur, or feathers. Unlike albinos, leucistic animals typically have normal-colored eyes.

Can albino animals reproduce normally?

Albino animals are capable of reproducing normally, and their offspring's coloration will depend on the genetics of both parents. If two albino animals mate, their offspring will also be albino. However, if an albino mates with a non-albino, the likelihood of albino offspring depends on whether the non-albino partner carries the recessive albinism gene.

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Discussion Comments

By KoiwiGal — On Jan 22, 2014

@Fa5t3r - It's actually interesting how often albinism occurs in nature, because it can't be a very good survival trait in the wild. Unless you live in the snow, an all-white creature is going to stand out vividly against any background.

Although people have always valued them for their strangeness. White elephants, for example, were always considered good fortune, to the point where it was forbidden to kill or mistreat them.

That's actually where the term "white elephant" came from. Often a king would give a white elephant to someone he didn't like because he knew they would have to keep it and that cost a lot of money with no financial compensation.

By Fa5t3r — On Jan 22, 2014

@umbra21 - Generally the albino gene isn't that much of a problem, because it is relatively common so there are plenty of chances to get diversity into the bloodlines. It's usually more of a problem when someone is trying to match more than one trait together like they would if they were trying to create, say, a new breed of dog.

Although I think it can be linked to blindness sometimes. I've had plenty of albino birds though and never had health problems with them.

By umbra21 — On Jan 21, 2014

If you are thinking of breeding albino animals or birds, take a good look at the genetic history of them before you start. Often people are so eager to get an unusual looking pet that they completely disregard other problems and you can end up with things like deafness or disease linked with the albino gene.

That's not true of every species, of course, but any time you want to breed for a particular trait you should check out what you're doing so you don't end up causing harm.

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