After noticing a male giraffe gradually turning white over a period of several years, researchers from the Rothschild’s Giraffe Project have suggested that the animal probably has vitiligo – the same condition that Michael Jackson famously suffered from.
Speaking to New Scientist, Zoe Muller – who first reported the discovery in the African Journal of Ecology – said she “first started to see a few white spots appear on the animal’s coat back in November 2009,” adding that she was “puzzled” as she “had never seen this before” in a giraffe.
Having taken more than 430 photos of the animal since then, she has been able to track the development of this unexpected phenomenon over the course of the past seven years. Now, the giraffe – which lives at the Soysambu Conservancy in Kenya – is almost completely white from the base of its neck upwards.
Michael Jackson famously suffered from vitiligo, a condition resulting from a loss of ability to produce melanin, which gives the skin its color. Exactly what causes vitiligo is not entirely clear, although it appears to be made worse by exposure to the sun.
According to Muller, albino giraffes – which are born white – have previously been reported, although “there has never been a documented case of a giraffe turning white over time.” While it is not possible to say exactly what has caused this, Muller suspects it may have been brought on by some sort of skin infection, as she saw it behaving strangely immediately before the first white patches began to appear.
If this is the case, then there could be cause for concern, as the possibility of this infection spreading to other Rothschild’s giraffes could have major implications for the survival of this endangered species.
Coloration plays an important role in the lives of many animals, helping to camouflage them from predators while also attracting mates. The prospect of giraffes losing their famous colors could therefore potentially have a range of undesirable consequences. Fortunately, however, Muller reports that so far, the white giraffe does not seem to have been affected by his fading shades.