Over the years Friends of Texas Wildlife has been assisting animals, we have been very privileged to see some unusual coloration in our wild friends. This month’s article will discuss some of color mutations that can show up in animals of many species.
Albinism is an inherited genetic condition that reduces the amount of melanin pigment formed in the skin, hair and/or eyes. Albinism can be found in mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates. True albinism is quite rare in nature, but there are reports and sightings of many different types of albino animals. Not all white animals are albinos, however; true albino animals lack any pigment in all body parts, and they have pink or very light blue eyes. Albino animals face some definitive survival challenges. Albinism affects eyesight as the absence of melanin results in abnormal eye development, which often means that those with albinism struggle with depth perception or other vision issues. These vision issues may make it more difficult for albino animals to find food or avoid danger. Lacking protective coloration, albino animals may also be more likely to be seen by both predators and prey. However, in some cases coloration may not matter much. Predators such as hawks may rely more on shape and movement to identify prey, so the color of the prey may make little difference. Melanin normally protects the skin from UV damage, so animals with albinism are more sensitive to sun exposure. Animals that are normally nocturnal may be less negatively impacted by albinism than diurnal animals. Some animals, such as squirrels, have retinas that are different, so they are not as negatively impacted by albinism. Albino animals may also have more difficulty finding mates as they are often considered outcasts by their peers.
Leucism is a condition in which there is partial loss of pigmentation in an animal. This can result in a mostly white animal, or an animal which lacks one color pigment in particular, or patchy coloration occurring in skin, hair, feathers, or scales. However, the coloration of eyes and nails are not affected. For instance, a robin may have normal black coloration but lack the red coloration, which would result in a black bird with a white breast. Or an opossum might appear totally white with just black ears; this animal lacks black pigment to most of its fur, but the ears maintain their normal coloration. A white tiger is another example of a leucistic animal (it lacks the normal orange pigment butretains the black stripes). Animals which are referred to as “piebald” or spotted are leucistic; the patches are where there is lack of pigment in the skin, fur, or feathers. Leucism is much more common than albinism.
Melanism is when an animal develops more melanin than is normal for the species, leading to all black coloration of feathers, fur, or scales. Melanistic animals are somewhat common in nature, with some species even passing on the trait as a genetic adaptation.Black leopards and jaguars are two of the more commonly-recognized melanistic animals. In some species, it appears that melanistic coloration may be an adaptation to the environment. In other instances, it could be the result of the cross-breeding of similar species (examples could be the offspring of fox squirrel/gray squirrels breeding, or the hybrid mix of domestic dogs and wolves). Some research seems to indicate that melanistic wolves and large cats are more common in heavily-forested areas, where light levels are lower. Each year at our wildlife center, we get one or two melanistic baby squirrels. We have even gotten siblings where one or two are normal color, and one is melanistic. Other than their unique and beautiful coloration, they are alike in all other aspects.
Seeing an animal of any species with unique coloration is truly a special experience. Many animals with abnormal coloration seem to do just fine in the wild, so it doesn’t necessarily mean they need assistance or rescuing. As with anything else, if the animal appears to be acting normal and doesn’t seem sick or injured, it is best to enjoy its unique beauty and leave it alone.
To learn more about what we do and view pictures of many of the animals we assist, please visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/SavingTexasWildlife. Our educational visitor’s center is open the second Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., located at 29816 Dobbin Hufsmith Road, Magnolia, Texas, so the next open house date will be Saturday, November 9. Come on out and visit us, learn a little more about local wildlife, do some fun activities and a craft, and meet some of our non-releasable wildlife educational animals. We also host birthday parties, camps, and educational presentations. For more information about events, birthday parties, camps, or educational presentations for scouts, schools, or other groups, please visit our website or email [email protected] There are many other ways you can help support our efforts, too (such as Kroger Community Rewards, Amazon Smile, etc.). Details can be found at www.ftwl.org, and then click on “How to Help”
Executive Director - Friends of Texas Wildlife