Florida's Gatorland preserve is home to thousands of big toothy reptiles. But recently, one of the gators, a ten-year-old female named Pearl, has been taking the spotlight. Pearl owes her fame – and her name – to the genetic mutation that makes her whole body pure white.

Pearl is albino: her body doesn't produce melanin, the pigment that normally provides colour to skin and scales. This leaves all 2.3 metres (7.5 feet) of her body gleaming as white as her sharp teeth, except for her eyes, which are tinged pink from the blood vessels showing through. 

Pearl may be unusual, but she isn't the only white gator at the park. An old male named Bouya Blan, originally from Louisiana, is almost as colourless as Pearl, except for a pair of blue eyes. Bouya Blan isn't a true albino – like the patchwork dolphins and spotted sharks we've seen before, he's leucistic, meaning he still has some pigment (around his eyes, as well as the mouth and parts of the tail). His brother Spots, previously of the Audobon Aquarium in Louisiana, had the same condition.

Unlike Pearl, Bouya Blan has a condition known as leucism, which causes only partial loss of pigmentation. Image: Gatorland Orlando/Facebook

In humans, albinism occurs only in one out of every several thousand people, but we don't know for sure how prevalent these conditions are in other species. There are records from all corners of the animal kingdom, however, from turtles to famous humpback whales.

Life can be tough for such animals in the wild. In alligators, whose normal green colouration helps them disappear in swampy surroundings, white scales act like a beacon to predators (or to prey wary of an ambush). This may be one of the main reasons albino animals are so rarely seen – many probably don't survive to live long lives.

Being pale also presents another problem: sensitive skin. Melanin is very handy for protecting against the sun, so animals without these pigments can be at risk to skin or eye damage. This can be especially devastating to a reptile who would normally spend a lot of time basking for warmth. At Gatorland, Pearl and Bouya Blan both live in special shaded enclosures.

White gators may not last long in the wild, but they're a big hit in zoos and aquariums. One of the most famous gators in the United States is a 21-year-old true albino named Claude, who lives at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Claude is so popular that he's even featured on gift shop merchandise.

Claude the albino gator at home in the Swamp at the California Academy of Sciences. Image: Brocken Inaglory (from Wikimedia Commons)


Top header image: Christoph Würbel, Flickr