Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Albino Animals

If I didn't have kids, I would never go into the children's section of the library. (In fact, without kids, I'd probably have enough money that I'd just buy books and not go to the library at all.) On the flip side, without kids I would never have run into a number of decent books, including Kelly Milner Halls' Albino Animals. Although written for children, it still has many facts about albinos and animals in general that I appreciated far more than my five-year old.

--Not only do albinos stand out to predators and prey, many die from sunburns and skin cancer. Snowflake, a male albino gorilla brought to captivity in 1966, died of skin cancer in 2003 despite efforts to limit his time in direct sunlight (skin cancer is virtually unknown in normal gorillas). Their eyes are vulnerable to UV radiation and often go blind. Even the genes that cause albinism are also linked to Chediak-higashi Syndrome, a disorder that causes fevers and illness. Albino plants lack green chlorophyll so starve to death shortly after sprouting. There was no mention of flesh-eating plants so I wonder how an albino Venus-flytrap would make out.

--In Utah, when fishermen complained that game officials weren't stocking lakes with enough fish, officials began including albino fish to the fishing spots. Albinos were easy to see in the water even if they weren't biting so complaints immediately dropped.

--Despite the claims in the bad movie Albino Alligator,
real albino alligators are not sickly or weak if kept in the right environment. Albino alligators and other reptiles are at special risk from sunburns and skin cancer because they bask in the sun so often but an albino raised in a warm, dark place would be no weaker than a regular reptile. John Brueggen of the St. Augustine Alligator Farm says, "Head to head against normal alligators their size, I'd say the match would be about even."

One reason you don't see many albino alligators is that commercial alligator farms hatch almost only male babies. Alligator eggs develop as females if heated to 85 degrees and male if heated to about 90. Since males grow faster, earning the breeders more money, all 30 of Florida's albino alligators are male.

-- Axolotls, Mexican salamanders that keep gills their entire lives, are all used in laboratory experiments. If their eyes are cut out, their power of regeneration is so great, that if the eyes are simply put back in the socket, the optic nerve will reattach, and sight will return in a few weeks. If we could only reproduce this ability, we could cure many paraplegics and other with nerve damage.

--The Brotherhood of Mutant Orcas--In 1970 near Vancouver Island, a pod of killer whales was discovered with each member showing some sort of deformity or unusual trait. The most famous, named Chimo, was albino but others had deformed facial features and malformed jaws. It's unclear if this occurred by chance or if they left original pods to band together. Chimo was captured and maintained in captivity but died within two years of Chediak-higashi Syndrome.

--Although Cincinnati is home to many of the world's white tigers, up until 2003, only two true albino tigers have ever been reported and even they were unconfirmed. In the Mahendra Chaudhury Zoo in 2003, a tiger that keepers claimed was albino was born. I wanted to find more information about them but my googling skills aren't coming up with anything. Here's something at least.

--In humans there are two main types of albinism: Oculocutaneous albinism (OCA) and Ocular albinism (OC). OCA are completely albino; OC have normally colored skin and hair but red eyes. About 18,000 albino people live in the U.S. More on albino humans here and here

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