a bright rust color in summer. A gray squirrel is, well, gray. That is, unless they have a rare condition called albinism.


Albino animals are astonishingly all white, sometimes partly white. And their eyes are deep pink or icy blue.


Maybe you’ve seen a white squirrel in the wild or a white rabbit or mouse in a pet store. They stand out among other animals with normal color, especially the ones that blend into their surroundings. Though they are very different on the outside, they differ only in small ways on the inside.

Without thinking about it, we use color to recognize things in nature. A male cardinal is red. 

Albinos are always white . Their striking appearance has always made people wonder about albino animals. Some people believed albinos had special powers and worshiped them; others believed they were spooky and feared them.

Today we know that the real wonder and mystery of albinism lies in the complex function of pigment, the coloring matter found in certain cells of living organisms. Pigment is controlled by genes, inherited from an animal’s mother and father.


Siamese cats are albinos too. So are Himalayan rabbits and mice. In this albino variation, cooler regions of the body produce more melanin than others, so that these animals have darker “points,” that is, a dark face, tail, paws, and ear tips. They have pink or blue eyes, and their vision is affected to varying degrees.

Not all albinos are pure white !

Albinism occurs when an animal inherits either a single trait or set of traits that interrupt the making of the pigment melanin. Melanin is the primary pigment that determines the color of a mammal’s skin, fur, and eyes.

Not all albinos are pure white, because some traits that control melanin allow forms of the pigment to appear in the fur of the animal.

page2image15688Notice the normal color of eyes of this snowshoe hare. It is an example of a white mammal that is not albino. 

Here is another example example of a white mammal that is not albino. 

This is a TRUE Ice White Pomeranian . 

Not all white animals are albinos. So how Many animals are white, even pure white but are not albino? 

 If an animal’s eyes are any color other than pinkish-red or pale blue, it is not albino.

below is a true Albino Pomeranian notice the PINK eyes 

 White animals, such as the polar bear, whose eyes are normal in color and function are called leucistic. Some animals, such as the snowshoe hare, have a leucistic phase for camouflage during the snowiest time of the year Studying albinism in amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish, and other non- mammals is complicated by the presence of several other visible pigments. Xanthin, a yellow pigment, can be seen in the albino leopard frog. The Albino Squirrels of Olney, Illinois. One town in Illinois is so taken by albino squirrels that residents have purposely cultivated a population since 1902. Impaired vision makes it more difficult for albino animals to stay out of harm’s way. That’s why the Olney albino squirrel population—once almost 1,000 and now little more than 200—is pampered with food from the townspeople and protected by law from cats, motorists, and squirrel-nappers.

can you tell if an animal is really an albino? The difference is in the eyes. Melanin affects the development of an ani- mal’s eyes and vision. Without the brown- black or red-yellow pig- ments of melanin color- ing the iris, the eyes of albino animals appear pink or light blue.

From whales to snails. Albinism probably occurs in every kind of animal that produces melanin. It has been observed in mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, mollusks, and insects—just about every species, from whales to snails. Almost all domestic animals have albino variants. Think about the mice, rabbits, and guinea pigs we know as pets and laboratory animals. One researcher says that albino animals are preferred because they are easier to work with, perhaps because they have poor eye-sight 


Melanin is an organic pigment—a coloring agent found in nature—that is critical to producing most of the color seen in mammals. Depending on how it’s made, melanin comes in two color ranges: (1) eumelanin—dark browns and blacks; and (2) pheomelanin—light reddish tans and blondes. These two kinds of melanin provide animals

with cryptic coloration, or camouflage, helping them to blend into and hide in their surroundings.

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT PIGMENTS, see the Young Naturalists story on leaf color in the Sept.–Oct. 2000 Volunteer and the story on camouflage and mimicry coloration in the March–April 2000 issue.

Dark and light melanins, working alone or in combination, make either plain or multicolored coats and even multicolored individual hairs, a variation called agouti.

Pigments in living things not only provide coloration, but perform other important tasks as well. For example, in plants the green pigment chlorophyll makes nourishing sugars.

Melanin performs two tasks in most mammals and other animals. Scientists are trying to understand these tasks better:
• Protection from sunlight. Melanosomes, or
clusters of melanin, block harmful rays of the sun,

while allowing beneficial ones to enter.
• Vision. Melanin helps develop various parts of the eyes, including the irises, retinas, eye muscles, and optic nerves. The absence
of melanin results in
disorganized development
of eyes and leads to
problems with focusing,
depth perception, and

The dark eye spot in most animal embryos is caused by melanin, key to vision development in early stages of animal life. 


The TYR gene can be altered in many ways. More than 50 ways have been discovered in humans and 33 in mice. In all-white, light-eyed albino animals, the TYR gene does not work at all, producing no tyrosinase and no melanin pigmentation. In other albino

Melanin is made through a complex chain of chemical reactions that occur in a specialized cell called a melanocyte. Because it is a complex process, many factors can alter the production of melanin in a melanocyte. The most critical factor in the process is the presence of a special enzyme (agent that starts and speeds up reactions) called tyrosinase: Without it, melanin cannot be made.

HOW MANY ALBINO OFFSPRING can be made by two parents who each carry the recessive albino gene but are not albino themselves? Since genes come in pairs, each parent can be represented by a pair of letters. Let the uppercase letter A represent the dominant or usual form of the gene, and let the lowercase letter a represent the unusual, recessive type of this gene that could cause a form of albinism. Now let’s make a box called a Punnett square to help us do the math.

Animals inherit genes from their parents. Mammals have a special gene that determines the presence of tyrosinase in cells. Geneticists call it the TYR gene. If

An offspring from two parents with the recessive albino gene has a 1 in 4 chance of being born albino. Since this recessive gene is rare in the first place, rarer still is the chance of both parents having it. That’s why albinos in the wild and among humans are so animal is born with an altered or damaged TYR gene instead of a normal or whole one, melanin cannot be reliably made. The animal will become an albino.

a Aa aa

variations, the TYR gene may cause tyrosinase “leaks” that cause small amounts of melanin to accumulate as the albino grows. These albinos will still have light eyes, but will show some color on their fur as they become older.

HUMAN ALBINISM has been studied a lot more than animal albinism. Much of this research has been conducted at the Uni- versity of Minnesota International Albinism Center. In Minnesota, one in 20,000 people has albinism. One in 200 people carries the recessive gene for it.

Besides the TYR gene, several other
genes can cause albino variants. That’s
because other hormones and proteins
also are key to complete melanin
production, and their presence is
determined by their own special genes.
In mice, a total of 100 genes are known to affect albinism.

All the genetic traits for albinism are recessive traits, meaning that their power remains hidden when paired with stronger traits. For the recessive albino trait to appear in an animal, the baby animal must inherit a recessive gene from both parents.


A a A AA Aa


An albino skunk is easy to see but, like other skunks, has a potent weapon—the stinky liquid in its scent glands. Will its enemies recognize an all-white animal as a skunk?

To live and flourish in the wild, animals must be able to find food and avoid becoming food themselves. They must also find mates for making offspring. Do albino animals, with their poor eyesight, have trouble finding food or

seeing danger? Does their sense of smell or hearing make up for their impaired vision? With their light coloration, will they be more likely to be seen and eaten by predators? With their unusual appearance, will they be accepted by potential mates? Little research has been done to answer these questions.

Scientists have explored how an albino’s white coat or missing camouflage affects them as prey. Sometimes albinos are noticed and captured more easily than normal animals. But in other instances, predators didn’t seem to recognize them as food. (Would you recognize white hamburgers as good to eat?) In studies where animals had many places to hide, predators captured albino and normally colored animals at the same rate. Coat color did not make a difference.

Hunting Albino Animals. Some people believe hunting albino animals should be off-limits. In fact, 13 states have made it illegal to do so. In Minnesota it is legal to hunt albino animals, although the hunting of white bears, albino or leucistic, is outlawed. Is it unsporting to hunt an animal that may be easier to find? Should we make a law to prevent hunting albino animals? Or should we continue to allow hunters to decide for themselves?

Several studies of birds, including ravens, barn swallows, red-winged blackbirds, and penguins, have demonstrated that albino birds have trouble winning a mate. Albino birds were consistently rejected, perhaps because they lacked the characteristics, such as feather color and pattern, that potential mates rely on to make choices.

The curiosity of a scientist. If albino animals make you wonder, follow the trails that lead into the world of science. From the how and why of color, to the study of genes, to views of social behavior, science offers a powerful way to explore, understand, and organize the mysteries at work in our astonishing natural world. nV

















Humpback Whale

























Humpback Whale

Meet the black Brazilian mother who has three white children


Last updated at 8:00 AM on 3rd September 2009

A black mother has baffled scientists after giving birth to three albino children.

Parents Rosemere Fernandes de Andrade and her partner Joao are dark-skinned Afro-Brazilians, yet three of their five children are albinos. 


Albino siblings Esthefany Caroline (l), Ruth Caroline (2nd l), Kauan (c) pose with their mother Rosemere Fernandes and their brothers at home in Brazil


Albino siblings Esthefany Caroline (l) and Kauan Fernandes (r) play with their cousin Taina (c) outside their home

Genetics professor Valdir Balbino of the Federal University of Pernambuco said this is a very rare occurrence considering the parents and two other children are black.

Both parents must carry the albinism gene in order to produce a child with albinism.  Where both parents are carriers of the albinism gene, there is a one in four chance that a child will be born with the condition.

The family live in the slum of Olinda in north-east Brazil and the children have faced taunts by fellow pupils at their school.

The condition affects around one in 17,000 people. Those with albiinism do not produce enough melanin pigment, which gives colour to the skin, hair and eyes and protects the body from the sun's rays. 

They often suffer from extreme short-sightedness and a severe sensitivity to light.

Enlarge  albino siblings

The albino siblings must cover up to protect their sensitive skin from the sun

Mrs Fernandes, 27,says she struggles to pay the medical bills for daughters Ruth, 10, and Esthefany, eight, as well as five-year-old son Kauan. 

She must also buy expensive sun-block and extra clothing to protect their skin.

The mother of five has also been challenged by security guards who insisted she could not be the children's mother.

Mrs Fernandes, of Olinda, said: 'I'm afraid of skin cancer because I can't afford the protection they need.'

A spokesman from Albinism Fellowship said: 'It can be hard for parents when they are faced with a baby who is much fairer than either parent.

'In most cases children with albinism are born to parents who have no previous experience of the condition. From the first day of their new baby's life, the parents often find themselves on a steep learning curve.'  

For more information and support for those affected by the condition visit

Enlarge Albino siblings

Albino sibling Kauan Fernandes (r), plays next his mother Rosemere Fernandes and his sister Rebeca. His mother struggles to pay their medical bills

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