Many animals appear white in color, but not all white animals are albino. Albinism is a genetic condition that causes a lack of pigmentation in an animal’s skin, fur, feathers, scales or eyes. While albino animals have little to no melanin, other white animals may have normal pigment levels but lighter color fur or feathers. In this article, we’ll explore some of the most common non-albino white animals and what makes their coloring different.
The polar bear’s bright white fur provides camouflage while hunting on the Arctic ice. Their hair shafts are hollow and translucent, scattering and reflecting light to aid in concealment. Polar bears produce normal levels of melanin, so they are not albino. However, their fur lacks pigmentation and only appears white. The skin under their fur actually has black pigment. Polar bear cubs are born with gray or yellowish fur and only develop their white coats as they mature.
White tigers have pale fur and stripes, but are not considered albinos. They have blue eyes and pink noses, which can be signs of albinism. However, white tigers possess some normal pigmentation in their stripes and eyes that would be absent in true albinos. Their white color is caused by a double recessive gene, not a complete lack of melanin like albinism. In fact, white tigers can still produce normal orange-colored offspring when bred with other tigers.
The elegant white peacock displays its bright fan of feathers, but lacks the usual vivid iridescent colors. White peacocks are not albinos, since they have normal eye color and retain some pigmentation in their skin and feathers. Their white appearance is caused by the presence of a genetic mutation that inhibits most melanin production, resulting in an all-white phenotype. They may have small patches of color due to traces of melanin.
The brilliant white lions of South Africa draw attention for their unique pale fur and blue eyes. As with white tigers, their unusual color is not caused by albinism but rather a genetic rarity. White lions have blue eyes and pink noses, but conservationists have observed faint yellowish tints in the fur, indicating low levels of normal pigment. These great cats are considered leucistic, having reduced pigmentation but not a total absence.
While extremely rare, white alligators occur naturally in some southern swamplands. Their distinctive white skin and markings are caused by leucism, not albinism. These gators tend to have blue eyes, which indicates some pigmentation. True albino alligators with pink or red eyes are incredibly rare. The leucistic alligators are hatched from normal, non-albino parents carrying the leucism genetic mutation.
Squirrels are commonly brown or gray, but pure white squirrels occur in isolated populations around the world. These unusual rodents are not albino, as they have typical dark eyes rather than pink. The white fur is caused by genetic variations such as leucism, which reduces but doesn’t eliminate all pigment. Other possibilities include a recessive gene similar to that of white tigers, or simple lack of pigment in the hair shaft while retaining colored eyes.
In the arctic regions of North America and Eurasia roam white caribou and reindeer, iconic symbols of Christmas. While they appear purely white, these animals are not albino. Their fur lacks pigment, but their skin and eyes show normal coloring. Calves are born darker and lighten as they mature. The white fur provides ideal winter camouflage in the snowy tundra environment.
White horses gallop across many myths and legends, symbolizing rarity and purity. The vast majority of so-called “white” horses are actually gray – born darker and developing white hairs over time. However, some horses do carry genes for true dominant white coloring. While this lacks the usual pigment, it is caused by a different genetic mechanism than albino horses, which are extremely rare.
Other White Animals
In addition to the animals described above, various other seemingly white species are not considered albino. These include white kangaroos, swans, geese, cranes, buffaloes, deers, lemurs, whales, seals, penguins, and many more. Their white fur, feathers or skin may be caused by pigment reduction or dilution, winter camouflage, or simply lacking melanin while retaining normal eye color. Truly albino individuals do occasionally occur but are genetically distinct.
Traits of Albino Animals
To understand why certain white animals are not albino, it helps to go over the key characteristics of true albinism:
|Lack of melanin||Complete absence of melanin pigment in skin, fur, feathers, scales and eyes|
|White hair/fur/feathers||No pigment in hair shafts/fur/feathers results in white color|
|Pink/red eyes||Lack of pigment in iris causes pink/red eye color|
|Sensitive to sun||Melanin protects from UV rays, so albinos sunburn easily|
|Vision problems||Abnormal eye development often leads to poor vision|
The animals discussed in this article may share some albino traits such as white fur, but also have differences proving they are not true albinos. Having normal eye color, patches of color in the skin/fur, or ability to produce pigmented offspring are signs an animal has unusual genetics beyond albinism. Science is still discovering new genetic causes of variations in animal coloration.
Many striking white animals stand out against more commonly colored members of their species. While one might assume these rare creatures are albino, most have subtle signs of pigment and distinct genetic origins unrelated to albinism. A true albino animal lacks all melanin pigment, resulting in white fur and pink or red eyes. White tigers, peacocks, alligators, squirrels and other species discussed here have some pigment and normal eye color, so are considered leucistic or simply lacking hair pigment rather than albino. Understanding the genetic mechanisms behind whiteness in animals helps appreciate their rarity in nature.