The past couple weeks I’ve seen more white squirrels than I’ve ever see before and I was all excited that I was finding rare albino versions of the animal. After poking around on the Internet, however, I’ve discovered there’s a lot more to this than meets my eyes.
Thanks to information I found on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website, just because an animal is white (when it normally isn’t that color) doesn’t mean that it’s an albino. Conversely, an albino animal doesn’t have to be totally white, either.
The answers can all be found in the animal’s genes. Animals that have strong white coloration lack the genetics to produce the pigment melanin.
An albino member of a species inherits genes that interrupt the making of melanin. But other members of the same species may have other factors that block melanin production, making the animal look all white. The key difference can be found in the eyes.
An albino will have pink or light blue eyes, shades that are very uncommon to the animal. A white, non-albino will have eyes that are usual color of its species, usually black. From what I’ve seen lately, the white squirrels I’ve been seeing have black eyes. The estimated rate of albinism in squirrels is estimated at one in 100,000.
Of course, there are some other all white mammals. They’re called leucistic. Polar bears are leucistic year round, while snowshoe hares have a leucistic phase in the white, giving them good cover in the winter snows.
Getting back to the white squirrels, there are a number of towns across North America that celebrate their white furry critter. For instance, in Olney, Illinois, protects and fosters their growth. They’ve had laws on the books to protect the white rodents since 1902 and had a population that grew to 1,000 at one time. Today, there are about 200. Olney, along with towns in North Carolina, California, Texas and Ontario, use the white squirrels as tourist attractions.
The book is still out on if albinism is a detriment to survival. On first thought, being all-white would be a huge disadvantage to being spotted by a predator, you might think. But through more study naturalists have come to believe predators may not recognize a white-version of their prey as food. In studying albino birds, researchers have found that the white-feathered creatures have a hard time finding a mate -- another reason why the albino genes become so rare.