A rare "blonde" zebra has been spotted in the Serengeti National Park, apparently confirming that light-colored zebras can survive quite happily in the wild.
Sergio Pitamitz, a photographer for National Geographic, was in Tanzania hoping to capture some photos of the migrating zebras when he saw a flash of white in the black-and-white-striped crowd.
An unusual white-and-gold-striped animal stepped forward to have a drink from a nearby watering hole.
“At first I thought it was a zebra that had rolled in the dust,” Pitamitz told National Geographic. But the "dust" didn’t wash off in the water, and he realized what he was looking at.
It looks like the zebra has partial albinism, a genetic condition that leads to a lack of melanin, the dark pigment that occurs in hair, skin, and fur. Albinism has been recorded in a variety of animals, from orangutans to penguins. Its opposite, melanism, where there is an excess of dark pigment, also occurs, most often in big cats, but occasionally in other animals.
In zebras in the wild, though, it is extremely rare. Despite reported sightings, it’s only ever been documented in animals in captivity. Scientists weren’t sure if zebras with albinism could survive in the wild, although it shouldn’t affect their rate of survival. Zebras’ stripes aren’t for camouflage against predators, or for keeping them cool, instead, evidence points to warding off biting flies, of which there are plenty in the hot African plains and mountains where they live.
One way it may have been vulnerable was if it wasn’t accepted by its herd – safety in numbers is a tried and tested method against predators. But these photographs seem to confirm that it is accepted just fine by its more traditionally dressed contemporaries.
As well as using sound and smell, it’s thought zebras, who have excellent eyesight, use the striped markings to identify each other. Each zebra’s pattern is unique, like fingerprints, so perhaps they are unfazed by these slightly more unusual markings. After all, melanistic zebras, and even spotted zebras have been seen in the wild.
For a while a blonde zebra called Zoe, who lived at Three Ring Ranch Animal Sanctuary in Hawaii, was thought to be the only blonde zebra in existence until she died in 2017, but there is a small herd of golden zebras at a privately owned reserve in Mount Kenya National Park, though it is thought they are bred for their color.
There are actually three species of zebra – the plains zebra, mountain zebra, and Grévy's zebra – and all have slightly different markings. It's possible they evolved stripes independently. Different patterns clearly don't hinder them, and these photographs could be evidence that albinism may actually occur more often in zebras in the wild than we had thought.
[H/T: National Geographic]