Poland’s Gdańsk Zoo revealed an extremely rare albino penguin chick born in captivity and with snow-white plumage and shrimp-pink eyes, yes, it’s as cute as it sounds.
Because of its genetic mutation, it has remained under veterinary care since hatching mid-December. Albinism occurs when an animal lacks melanin, the dark brown or black pigment that occurs in the hair, skin, and iris of people and animals. This lack of protective pigmentation makes albino animals more prone to the effects of sunlight, such as skin defects and eye damage, which can affect their ability to gather food. In the wild, it’s likely the tuxedo-less penguin would be rejected by other penguins offering little chance of survival.
“One of the ways that birds recognize each other is their plumage,” Vikki McCloskey, Curator of the California Academy of Science Steinhart Aquarium, told IFLScience. McCloskey is not affiliated with Gdańsk Zoo, but she does work with the academy’s African penguin colony and has extensive experience handling the seabirds.
“Juvenile penguins don’t have their tuxedos until they go through their first adult molt. If this bird never gets a tuxedo then I imagine the other birds would consider it a juvenile no matter how old it is,” she explained, adding that the academy has had a few birds with different color patterns or more white feathers on their face. In the wild, rare “white” penguins have been spotted like these Adelie penguins found in Antarctica.
But a true albino penguin around today is unheard of. (Although an albino penguin named Snowdrop hatched at Britain's Bristol Zoo in 2002 and died shortly after.)
African penguins live only in a small area along the coast of Southern Africa, but their survival is threatened with a number of external pressures, including oil and gas drilling, habitat shifts from climate change, and declining food supply due to overfishing. There are an estimated 50,000 mature individuals left in the wild and that number is decreasing, according to past the last estimate conducted by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Gdańsk Zoo says their bleached fuzzy friend is a welcome omen of future success.
“That's why we keep our fingers crossed for our penguin, giving him special care,” said the zoo in a blog post.