From white giraffes to peacocks: What makes animals white

White lions at a private zoo in Dvorec village in the Czech Republic. Pigments are very important to animals for a number of reasons, such as providing camouflage, and protecting the skin and eyes from the sun. Some black bears living in Canada are b
White peacocks are not albinos, but are instead leucistic, meaning that they can still produce some of their original pigmentation. This is why, for instance, this peacock's eyes are not pink.PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
White lions at a private zoo in Dvorec village in the Czech Republic. Pigments are very important to animals for a number of reasons, such as providing camouflage, and protecting the skin and eyes from the sun. Some black bears living in Canada are b
Some black bears living in Canada are born whitedue to a condition called kermodism, a mutation of the same gene associated with red hair and fair skin in humans. PHOTO: MAXIMILIAN HELM/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
White lions at a private zoo in Dvorec village in the Czech Republic. Pigments are very important to animals for a number of reasons, such as providing camouflage, and protecting the skin and eyes from the sun. Some black bears living in Canada are b
White lions at a private zoo in Dvorec village in the Czech Republic. Pigments are very important to animals for a number of reasons, such as providing camouflage, and protecting the skin and eyes from the sun.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
White lions at a private zoo in Dvorec village in the Czech Republic. Pigments are very important to animals for a number of reasons, such as providing camouflage, and protecting the skin and eyes from the sun. Some black bears living in Canada are b
A rare albino southern right whale calf seen off the coast of the Valdez Peninsula in Argentina's Patagonia region in 2010. Animals that are completely white because of albinism or leucism are extremely rare in the wild. PHOTO: REUTERS
White lions at a private zoo in Dvorec village in the Czech Republic. Pigments are very important to animals for a number of reasons, such as providing camouflage, and protecting the skin and eyes from the sun. Some black bears living in Canada are b
This albino alligator is one of just a handful found in the United States. When the animals are kept in captivity, they need their own shade to prevent them from getting sunburned. PHOTO: JON ZANDER/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
White lions at a private zoo in Dvorec village in the Czech Republic. Pigments are very important to animals for a number of reasons, such as providing camouflage, and protecting the skin and eyes from the sun. Some black bears living in Canada are b
A rare white giraffe and its calf in Garissa County, Kenya. Rumours had circulated earlier about the pair in the area, but rangers were able to see the giraffes only in June this year after a tip-off.PHOTO: HIROLA CONSERVATION/CATERS NEWS

Photos of a rare white giraffe and its pale offspring - spotted recently in Kenya - have been taking the Internet by storm, notching up about a million views so far. This lack of pigmentation, while rare, occurs across the animal kingdom, in the furred, feathered and scaled, from the tiny mouse to the majestic humpback whale. Jose Hong brings you some of these creatures that missed out on nature's colour palette.

WHAT MAKES ANIMALS WHITE

  • In albinos, the cells are unable to produce the pigment melanin, which gives the skin or fur its normal colour. Pure albinos usually have pink eyes, nails, scales and skin because the pink of their blood vessels shows through.
  • In some animals, the eyes of an albino appear light blue or green because of the way light passes through the iris. In partial albinos, only some of their body appears white, while the rest has the typical colours of the species.
  • Leucistic animals are, just like albino ones, unable to produce melanin. However, some of the cells responsible for creating pigment can still function. Like the white giraffes, this leads to white or light-coloured individuals which have some other pigments - such as dark eyes and nails.
  • Other genetic conditions cause animals to be white. For instance, the phenomenon called kermodism affects black bears living in British Columbia, Canada, turning them white. This is due to a mutation of the same gene associated with red hair and fair skin in humans. Scientists from the University of Victoria found that salmon the bears feed on tend to react less to white shapes above water than black ones, which gives the white bears a slight advantage when hunting the fish.
  • A related condition is piebaldism, where patches of cells are unable to produce melanin, leading to white shapes and patterns on the surface of the animal. This is common in many animals, including dogs, cats and horses.
  • Some animals turn white for the winter. It is unclear why this is so, but apart from camouflage in the snow, some researchers believe a pale coat may have better insulating properties and keep the animal warmer.
  • These various conditions are easily confused with one another.
  • Pigments are very important to animals. They provide camouflage, protect the skin and eyes from the sun, and are used to attract mates. Animals that are completely white because of albinism or leucism are extremely rare in the wild, since the lack of camouflage colours makes them easy targets for predators. The lack of pigmentation in the eyes can also cause vision problems for albino animals, leading to problems when looking for food, avoiding predators, or searching for mates.

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To see more pale animals, visit the online version of our article. http://str.sg/49M8

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 29, 2017, with the headline 'Whiter shade of pale'. Print Edition | Subscribe