Albinos

Albinism, or absence of pigmentation, is a rare, but certainly not unknown condition among both plants and animals. It is caused by one or a combination of genetic mutations. In animals this condition usually results in pink eyes and white, pale pink, or translucent skin, fur, feathers, or scales. It is a result of an inability to produce melanin, the normal coloring pigment in animals. In the winter snowshoe hares, ptarmigan (Lagopus leucurus), and short-tailed weasels (Mustela erminea) are white, but should not be mistaken for albinos. They change color in the winter to match their environment, but have normal colored eyes, and sometimes patches on their bodies. Also, there are many normally white animals, such as egrets, polar bears, pelicans, and so forth, that are not albinos because they produce melanin in the appropriate organs.

Plants also can be albinos. This is most often seen in only one organ, their flowers. Plants that express albinism in their leaves and stems do not tend to live long lives, as these organs cannot photosynthesize without chlorophyll, the green pigment with which produces food for the plant.

Both plants and animals can be partial albinos. These organisms either have patches of normal and albino pigmentation interspersed, or are very pale compared to normal. Partial albinos are also fairly rare in nature. A recent quick survey of a beardless sidebells penstemon (Penstemon virgatus var. asa-grayi) patch in Rocky Mountain National Park showed one albino and two partial albinos among a few hundred normally colored plants.

Both albinos and partial albinos tend to be a bit less vigorous than their normally colored counterparts. This is probably due to the role coloration plays in protecting animals in their environments, and in attracting pollinators to the reproductive structures in flowers.

Last updated: March 31, 2012

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