A new study published in the journal BMC Genomics has found that famous albino gorilla Snowflake’s white hair was caused by inbreeding.
Researchers at the Barcelona Institute of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain have sequenced Snowflake’s genome and found that is albinism was caused by a mutation of the SLC45A2 gene. The same gene is also responsible for albinism in some mice, horses, and tigers. It is speculated that the gorilla’s grandfather carried the recessive trait and passed it on to his offspring, who were Snowflake’s parents, who may have been sibings, cousins, or half-siblings.
Snowflake was found in Equatorial Guinea during the 60s and taken to live at the Barcelona Zoo in Spain. The unique gorilla was featured in National Geographic magazine and became the face of the zoo until his death from skin cancer in 2003. Snowflake fathered 22 children during his life at the zoo, though none of them were albino. The new study was partially funded through a Snowflake scholarship program set up by the Barcelona Zoo.
In addition to his white skin, hair, and eyes, Snowflake suffered from vision problems brought on by his albinism. The researchers also believe that the condition led to the rare skin cancer that killed Snowflake.
Javier Prado Martinez, the lead author of the study, stated that discovery could have an impact on endangered species research.
“We believe that this approach can have a significant impact on the study of the conservation of endangered species such as gorillas and other great apes, although it can be extended to any endangered species,” said Martinez.
(Image courtesy the Barcelona Institute of Evolutionary Biology)