First Sighting Of An Albino Chimp In The Wild — And His Tragic Death

The dead body of the infant with albinism being inspected by two infants. Image courtesy of Maël Leroux

Among the dense forests of Uganda, researchers have observed the first known case of a wild chimpanzee with albinism. Tragically, however, the group quickly turned on the white-furred infant and his mother, killing him in a brutal and vicious attack.

The observation was recently documented in the American Journal of Primatology by a team from the University of Zürich in Switzerland and the Budongo Conservation Field Station. 

The white-furred male infant was first spotted in July 2018 within the Budongo Forest Reserve in northwest Uganda. Judging by his size and the timing of his mother’s pregnancy, the research team estimate was between 14 to 19 days old at the first sighting. 

"We were really interested in observing the behavior and reactions from other group members towards this individual with a very unusual appearance," Maël Leroux, lead study author from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, told IFLScience.

Over the following few days, the albino infant and his mother (known as UP) were seen a number of times. However, the researchers note that other chimps in the group were already showing signs of antagonism and aggression. In one encounter, the researchers saw members of a group near the mother and infant making “hoos and waa barks”, which chimps typically produce when encountering dangerous or strange animals, such as snakes or unfamiliar humans. An altercation then broke out, and an adult male struck UP and the infant, before forcing her up a tree while others whooped and barked below. 

Not all the individuals were hostile, though. During this altercation, the one adult male approached UP and extended his hand towards her “apparently to reassure her,” the study reads. Another adult female calmly and silently watched the albino infant attentively.

The infant’s death occurred on the morning of July 19. Just after 7:30 am, the researchers heard aggressive screams and the cries of an infant. The alpha male emerged out of the thicket, holding the albino infant who was missing an arm. At least six other chimps joined him and started biting the fingers, legs, and ears of the screaming infant. Eventually, the chimp was passed to an adult female who started biting the infant’s head repeatedly. At this point, the infant fell silent and stopped moving. 

Unusually, ten members of the group then proceeded to stroke, sniff, and inspect the carcass. While chimps inspecting a dead body is not unheard of, it’s thought the infant garnered extra attention from the other group members due to its unusual appearance. The researchers also note the body was subjected to some exceptional behavior, such as one chimp sticking their finger into the anus of the carcass.

“I would say the time spent inspecting the body, the number and diversity of individuals inspecting it and some of the behavior exhibited — ‘petting’ the back, pinching the hair with their lips on the body first then on their own bodies, or the insertion of a digit in the anus — are really rare behavior observed. The ‘petting’ and ‘pinching’ behaviors have not been observed previously in this context to my knowledge,” added Leroux.

The body was recovered by the researchers who took it back to the lab for an autopsy. Here, they confirmed that the individual had albinism with a total absence of pigmentation in his skin, hair, and eyes. 

Albinism is a genetic condition characterized by the absence of the pigment melanin. It can affect any species, from chimps and humans to orcas and even pandas. Along with individuals possessing white hair and red eyes, the condition can bring a number of other challenges. For instance, individuals with albinism often suffer from vision problems and are at an increased risk of solar radiation. Furthermore, their white appearance can mean they are easily spotted by predators. For these reasons, it's rare to spot certain species with albinism in the wild, just as this tragic case highlights. 

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