Dare to Be Different: Albinism in Marine Mammals

A rare albino fur seal was spotted off the Eastern coast of Russia. Being different in the wild comes with many challenges. In this post, we will explain albinism in marine mammals.

The curious case of the ginger seal

In early September, marine mammologist Vladimir Burkanov made a surprising discovery on Tyuleny Island, in Russia. The biologist stumbled upon an albino northern fur seal pup during a research trip and nicknamed it “Ugly Duckling“. The seal pup showed rare features such as bright ginger fur, pink flippers, and light blue eyes. A discovery like this is quite rare for this species. Indeed, scientists have estimated that the chances of finding a fur seal born with albinism are about one in 100,000.

albinism marine mammals
“Ugly Duckling” contrasted with the rest of his dark-furred colony. Credit: Vladimir Burkanov,August 11, 2020.

Albinism in marine mammals

Albinism includes genetic conditions that affect the pigmentation of an animal. It disturbs the production of melanin (a natural pigment). The color of mammals depends on the presence or absence of melanin in the body. Several genes are responsible for the production of this pigment. When a mutation in one of these genes happens, it can cause albinism. This implies that the animal will suffer a complete or partial loss of pigmentation. As a result, albinism roughly translates to pale skin, eyes, and fur.

Scientists have not yet found the accurate frequency for true-albinism in marine mammals. Unusual pigmentation and white individuals were found in 21 cetacean species, as well as for numerous pinnipeds (seals). There are many well-documented albino sperm whales and bottlenose dolphins, yet it is still difficult to diagnose this condition. Additionally, when a white individual matches the description of true-albinism, it might not mean the animal is a true albino. “Albinism” can thus be caused by different conditions.

A difficult diagnosis

One famous example of misdiagnosis relates to “Chimo”, a white female orca displayed in the Canadian park Sealand of the Pacific from 1970 to 1972. Chimo was always considered to be a partial albino. Once she passed away, veterinarians confirmed that she suffered from Chédiak-Higashi Syndrome. This disease is a type of albinism that causes unusual pigmentation patterns and shortens the life span.

TL’uk, or T46B1B, the grey orca calf travelling with his matriline near Telegraph Cove, B.C. – Credit: Nicola Rammel, 2020

Another famous case of albinism is that of the grey transient Orca calf called “TL’uk”.  This juvenile killer whale with an ashen appearance was first spotted during the fall of 2018. “TL’uk”, or T46B1B, is not the first of his ‘lighter’ kind. Yet, scientists still do not understand what causes his condition. Still, they believe the grey color of his skin is most likely a symptom of leucism. Indeed, leucism causes an animal to partially lose its skin color pigmentation, except for the coloration of the eyes.

A few other examples of albinism in the wild

Living with albinism in the wild

Unfortunately, having albinism in the wild can often be synonymous with a death sentence for many species. In fact, animals with this condition have poor eyesight and apparent difficulties in camouflaging. Thus, a marine mammal with albinism is at a more significant disadvantage when it comes to finding food or hiding from predators. In the case of our beloved ginger fur seal, scientists also fear that it might face rejection from its colony. Specialists have reported that albinism amongst this pinniped species may also include reduced heat retention in Siberia’s cold waters. With impaired vision, a small chance of reproducing, and a bright coloring that announces him to his predators (orcas!), “Ugly Duckling” has yet to be accepted by his own.

Vladimir Burkanov still hopes that the young seal defies all odds. For now, the ginger seal appears healthy and has not yet been rejected by his colony. A similar case with another known albino seal revealed that, although left out during breeding seasons, the seal continued to live until five or six years old. From an evolutionary point of view, albinism can alter this pup’s chances of survival. Needless to say, we are all rooting for “Ugly Duckling.”

Thank you for reading! If you liked this post, check out our other posts on marine mammal biology.

Do whales drink seawater?

Laura Zeppetelli-Bédard is a MS.c. cadidate and research assistant at Université du Québec à Montréal. She is currently participating in a research project aimed at monitoring contaminants in the tissues of northern belugas (Delphinapteurs leucas) as part of the Arctic Contaminants Program.

PhD Student at University of Liège

Marianna is a PhD student at the University of Liège. Her research is specialized in ecotoxicology of Arctic seals. You can read more about her here

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top