A rare albino giant panda has captured the attention of bear enthusiasts around the world after being documented mid-April in southwest China.
Spotted at an altitude of 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) by an infrared camera trap in China’s Wolong National Nature Reserve, the giant animal has both white hair and claws with red eyes – all indications that it has a rare genetic mutation responsible for its unique coloring.
"Judging from pictures, the panda is an albino, one to two years old," Li Sheng, a researcher with Peking University and a specialist in bears, told Chinese publication Xinhua. "The panda looked strong and its steps were steady, a sign that the genetic mutation may not have quite impeded its life.”
Albinism occurs when an animal lacks melanin, the dark brown or black pigment occurring in hair, skin, and the eyes of people and animals. A lack of this protective pigment can make an animal more sensitive to sunlight, resulting in potential skin defects and eye damage. However, a press release issued by the reserve notes that an expert analysis of the photographs suggests that the mutation “may not affect the normal life of the panda.” These animals are found high in China’s bamboo forests, often sheltered from the sun by broad leaves.
It’s impossible to tell the gender of the panda, but the park adds that its presence indicates there could be a mutant gene present in Wolong’s giant panda population. It’s unclear whether the recessively inherited gene will be passed down to future generations. Only when both parent pandas carry the gene will it be exhibited in their offspring. If this particular bear mated with a normal panda, the first generation would still retain the adorable coloring the world has come to know and love. But, if the second generation of offspring also carries the albino gene and mates with another panda carrying the mutation, then it may be possible we could see albino pandas in the years to come.
Wolong National Nature Reserve is one of the largest and best-known panda reserves in China. Its warm, humid climate grows bountiful amounts of bamboo, the panda's favorite food. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, giant pandas are listed as vulnerable with just between 500 and 1,000 known mature individuals. The giant bears live only in the forests of China and are threatened by climate change, as well as pollution, human activities, and natural disasters.