White, Wild Animals and Why Difference Shouldn’t Be Wrong

Candice Gaukel Andrews May 2, 2017 2

The white ravens of Qualicum Beach, Vancouver Island, Canada, are leucistic. They first appeared in the “White Raven Capital of the World” about 10 years ago. ©Mike Yip, Vancouver Island Birds

A framed photo that hung on a wall of my grandfather’s large dining room is one of my earliest memories. Sepia-toned, it depicted a herd of deer, taken in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, near Boulder Junction. A few of the deer in that image looked different from the others; they appeared to be all white.

My grandfather was an avid outdoorsman: he was a hunter; an excellent perch and trout fisherman; a dog breeder of German shorthaired pointers, Weimaraners and vizslas; and a freelance writer for American Field Magazine and Field & Stream, among many other outdoor and sporting publications. That photo of Wisconsin’s famed albino deer herd was presented to him by a man who was the head of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources at the time.

So, when I recently saw a few photos of rare white ravens on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, it reminded me of my grandfather’s photo and set me off on a search about what it means for animals to be white in the wild.

Three ways to be white

Albino alligators have a disadvantage in the wild; most survive less than 24 hours.

Much like my fascination with that image of the white deer, humans have held a special place in their hearts for white animals since ancient times. In fact, in many cultures’ mythologies, they are even elevated to a sacred status.

Animals can take three paths to whiteness: albinism, leucism and isabellinism.

True albinos are unable to produce any kind of pigment. Their feathers, fur or scales are white; and they have pink eyes, since the blood vessels normally masked by eye color show through. Albinism is a recessive trait, which means that both parents must pass the mutation on to their offspring. It’s difficult to accurately determine how frequently this condition occurs in the wild because albinos tend not to survive for long. They usually have poor eyesight and are conspicuous, making them easy prey. Albino alligators, for example, survive on average less than 24 hours after hatching.

Leucistic animals are mostly white, but they are able to produce some pigment. For instance, they could display some eye color. One percent of all white-tailed deer are leucistic, which, like albinism, is a recessive genetic trait. Leucistic deer can be varying levels of white; some contain white splotches, some are half brown and half white, and some appear nearly all white. Their noses are black, and their eyesight is not usually affected. Although they generally survive longer than albino deer, like them they are not very well camouflaged. In a habitat with its large predators still intact, a leucistic deer’s chances of survival are slim.

True albino deer are all white, have pink eyes and are extremely rare. Leucistic deer may lack pigmentation in their fur but have brown eyes and a black nose. ©vallgall, flickr

The third condition, isabellinism, happens when a genetic mutation leaches the color out of pigmented animal parts, such as feathers—although the animals can still produce some pigment.

White bears

The Spirit Bears of British Columbia, Canada, represent a white animal that has great cultural meaning and is thought to be sacred. A subspecies of the American black bear (Ursus americanus), the Spirit Bear or Kermode bear (Ursus americanus kermodei), is not an albino. Scientists are actively studying these bears to determine if their color is due to a recessive gene, a double recessive gene or is a result of a concentration of a gene in the area.

Fewer than 400 Kermode bears are estimated to exist along the coast that stretches from Southeast Alaska southwards to the northern tip of Vancouver Island. The largest concentration of the white bears inhabits the 80-square-mile Gribbell Island, in the territory of the Gitga’ata people.

Spirit bears (white black bears) are better fishers by day than black black bears. ©Mark Hickey

Unlike deer that are white, Spirit Bears may have an advantage over other black bears. Scientists have found that black bears are not as effective at catching fish as the white bears, since their white color makes them less visible from the perspective of the fish. At night, black bears and white black bears have similar success rates while fishing; but during the day, the white bears are 30 percent more effective.

White bison

As with Spirit Bears, white bison are extremely rare. The National Bison Association has estimated that they only occur in approximately one out of every 10 million births. They may be albinos, leucistic or have a rare genetic condition that causes them to be born white but become brown within a year or two. Another possibility is that they may be beefalo, a bison-cattle crossbreed, and have inherited their white coloration from their cattle ancestry.

The Lakota believe that a white buffalo is one of the most sacred living things on Earth. ©Kenny Ainsworth, flickr

Many Native Americans consider white bison a symbol of hope and abundance and their births holy events. In Wisconsin, where I live, a female white bison named Miracle was born at the Heider family farm near Janesville, Wisconsin, on August 20, 1994. Her fur fully transitioned to brown as she matured. She died of natural causes on September 19, 2004. In 1996, another white calf born at the Heider farm died after four days. A third white calf was born in August 2006, which died after being struck by lightning in November of the same year. Recently, on May 7, 2016, a white buffalo mother gave birth to a white buffalo calf at the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation in Manitoba, Canada.

White deer

Apparition-like white deer have captivated people for centuries, and perhaps even millennia. Seen coming through a brown woods, it’s easy to understand how such “ghost” animals might be viewed as sacred and off limits for hunting.

One legend that’s almost universal among hunting cultures is that killing a white deer will set a hunter off on a long path of bad luck. Author Peter Flack notes in his book Hunting the Spiral Horns—Kudu, the Top African Antelope that hunters across Africa believe misfortune (even death) could befall any hunter who kills a white antelope.

Boulder Junction, Wisconsin, is home to Wisconsin’s largest herd of albino deer, and Wisconsinites view it as one of Wisconsin’s great natural treasures. No one knows for sure why there are so many albino deer in northern Wisconsin. It’s illegal to shoot an albino deer here, so perhaps this has allowed an existing population of albino deer to grow.

White ravens

According to legend, when the Earth becomes filled with evil again, The Creator will send white ravens. ©Mike Yip, Vancouver Island Birds

Ravens have long been powerful symbols and popular subjects of mythology and folklore. One of the largest corvids, ravens are known for their jet-black appearance and intelligence. The birds mate for life, can live up to 21 years in the wild and are found throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

As a subject of legends, ravens are often characterized as extremely clever and resourceful animals. One legend talks of how ravens were once white and helped humans get fire before they were turned black by the flames. Another says that The Creator created all ravens white, but when bad humans arrived and killed White Buffalo, ravens turned black. When the white ravens arrive again, it will mean that bad times are coming. The recent photos of the white ravens on Vancouver Island in British Columbia bring these legends to life.

Artists sometimes debate whether white is composed of all colors together, or if it is really no color at all. Scientists say white pigments reflect all the hues of the visible light spectrum back to the eyes.

Perhaps that’s what these animals stand for, then. They are different, yet they reflect all of us.

And how we treat those that are different among us does reflect on all of our kind.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

2 Comments »

  1. Candice Gaukel Andrews May 4, 2017 at 10:58 am - Reply

    Thank you, River!

  2. River DeLiso May 4, 2017 at 10:56 am - Reply

    Very cool and interesting photo/story!

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