|By Antony Stanley from Gloucester, UK|
(Albino Turtle, Kosgoda)
[CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s not just humans who can be born albino. Animals and marine life can be albino as well. The term albino (also referred to as albinism) is used to describe a person or animal that has an absence, or lack of, pigment or color in their hair, skin and eyes, often resulting in a white color. Albinism is a rare congenital condition, or genetic mutation, that interferes with the development of melanin which is what determines the color (pigment) of a person or animal’s skin, hair and eyes (or fur). Not all albinos are pure white since some pigmentation may be present at birth. Pure albinos will typically have pink eyes, nails, skin or scales since blood vessels will show through without the presence of any pigmentation.
Albinos in the sea have been sighted in 28 different species of marine life throughout the years, including 21 cetaceans (dolphins, whales and porpoises). Meet a few of these rare and exotic creatures that have gained notoriety over the years:
- Migaloo the albino humpback whale – Migaloo was first sighted in 1991 off the coast of Australia and it is a rare treat for researchers and whale watchers to catch a glimpse of this magnificent creature. Migaloo is a male and is believed to be somewhere in the range of 25 to 35 years old. At the time of his initial sighting he was thought to be the only all-white humpback whale in the world. Since that time other albino whales, that are more than 90% white, have been sighted. It is suspected that Migaloo may have fathered a couple of albino offspring that also grace the Australian waters. The Pacific Whale Foundation and The White Whale Research Centre have websites set up specifically devoted to Migaloo to provide information and also track sightings.
- Pinky the bottlenose dolphin – Pinky is a very rare pink dolphin in Louisiana that was first sighted in the Calcasieu River in 2007. She is not white like you would expect in an albino but is all pink (including her eyes). National Geographic described Pinky’s color as “bubblegum pink”. It is highly suspected that her exotic color is due to albinism where blood vessels show through her pale, non-pigmented skin resulting in her beautiful pink hue. Researchers have not confirmed, however, that this 8 or 9 year old dolphin is a true albino.
- Casper the friendly ghost is well-known to many people, but there is a very different kind of ghostly-looking Casper currently residing at the Hastings Blue Reef Aquarium in East Sussex, UK. That Casper is a very rare, all white, albino native dogfish shark nearly 3 feet in length with red eyes. Casper is most definitely a rare specimen since it is extremely unusual to see an albino shark, let alone catch one.
Individuals who see albino marine life in the wild should consider themselves very lucky since they are extraordinarily rare sightings. Albino sea turtles, like Alby, are incredibly rare to see but it does happen. It took researchers involved in a sea turtle monitoring program almost 10 years to find four albino sea turtle hatchlings on Vamizi Island in Mozambique. On a totally separate continent, two very rare partially albino sea turtles, with white heads, bodies and flippers, and beautiful pigmented markings on their shells, reside in a sanctuary at the Sea Turtle Reserve Center, Kosgoda, Sri Lanka.
Throughout the years various aquatic white wonders have been spotted by scientists, researchers, conservationists, divers and everyday sightseers. In 2014, a volunteer at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spotted the bright white dorsal fin of a bottlenose dolphin in the tranquil blue waters of the Indian River Lagoon in Central Florida. Other rare albino finds include stingrays, jellyfish, a sand tiger shark, Chinese softshell turtle and even a pure white lobster and blue crab. In the icy blue waters of the Antarctic Sea, images were captured of a white, translucent looking octopus, tons of hairy chested yeti crabs, and a starfish with 7 arms (photos were taken on the sea floor by a remote operated submersible vehicle during an expedition in 2010). It is not known, however, if the pale color of these mysterious sea creatures is due to albinism or if it is perhaps a new species.
Albinism and Survival in Marine Life:
Albinism in marine life can pose serious threats toward survival. Melanin provides certain functions that help to protect eyes and skin and with the absence of melanin those protective properties are compromised. Albino marine mammals may have poor or impaired eyesight, a reduction in heat absorption in cold waters, reduced ability to camouflage or blend into their environment for protection against predators, and sensitivity to light. It can be a challenge for albino marine life to make it to adulthood or even breed, but it can and does happen which makes their existence even more of a treasure to behold.