Back in 2015 a rare white giraffe was discovered in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania. Dr. Derek Lee, an ecologist with the Wild Nature Institute, first spotted the young calf while doing a giraffe survey in Tarangire. Three years later while on safari in Tanzania, my group was fortunate to see this rare giraffe. A local safari guide named her “Omo” after a popular local brand of detergent.
At first glance the giraffe appeared to be an albino but in fact has a rare condition called “leucism”. Caused by a genetic mutation that prevents pigment production in certain cells, leucistic animals are rare in nature. Leucistic animals differ from albinos in that pigment production is only partially lost resulting in a pale or spotty coloration of the skin, hair, and feathers, but the eyes are not affected. Albinism results in total loss of melanin (which colors the skin, hair or feathers) and the eyes are red or pink because the blood vessels show through. The genes causing leucism and albinism are harmful since the animal has no camouflage making them easier to see by predators and poachers.
Despite the rarity of this condition, I’ve been fortunate to see two other leucistic birds while on safari. On our 2016 safari in Uganda, we were boating along the Kazinga Channel in Queen Elizabeth National Park and had excellent views of a leucistic Malachite Kingfisher. Normally these small birds are brightly colored but since it can’t produce pigment in the feathers, this bird was a brilliant white. A quick look at the eyes tells you the bird is not albino but leucistic. Evidently this condition is so rare our guide told us bird watchers were coming from around the world for a glimpse of this white kingfisher.
I was leading a group from the US on a camping safari through Botswana in 2016 as we drove into camp one afternoon, a strange yet familiar looking starling landed in the grass near the vehicle. It was definitely a starling (maybe a Glossy or Meve’s Long-tailed) but had a mottled appearance and speckled with black and white. Most likely it was a leucistic individual as they can still produce feather pigment. As the eyes were dark, it certainly wasn’t an albino.
Next time you’re out in nature and see an animal that may be an albino, check the eyes. If the skin, fur, or feathers are white and the eyes are pinkish or red, you’re looking at an albino. If the eyes are dark, it’s a leucistic animal.
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