March of the Fossil Penguins

Fossil penguin discoveries and research

A White Penguin

with 2 comments

David Stephens at National Geographic snapped this picture of a rare white penguin on the Aitcho Islands. This Chinstrap Penguin (Pygoscelis antarcticus) is not albino, it is leucistic.  Albino animals lack pigment, typically because of a flaw in an enzyme involved in producing melanin.  You may remember learning a little about penguin melanin in the fossil penguin Inkayacu. Leucistic animals are able to form melanin, but generally have a mix of cells that  produce melanin and cells that cannot.  This results in a “washed out” appearance in cases like the penguin below.   Whatever triggered the condition (typically a gene mutation is involved), the penguin ended up with light brownish coloration on its back instead of the black coloration of normal Chinstrap Penguins.  Notice, though, that the beak and part of the feet are still black.  Leucism often affects a particular area of a bird rather than the entire individual.  White penguins turn up in the wild every year. However, it appears that either the mutations associated with leucism are recessive or the condition harms the penguins by ruining their counter-shading camouflage, because second generations have never been documented.

Leucistic Chinstrap Penguin photo by David Stephens. Click to see the original article and see a video.

Written by Dan Ksepka

February 9, 2012 at 11:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

2 Responses

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  1. I remember learning that the presence of melanin in feathers increases their resistance to abrasion, and feathers without any pigment are weakest. Maybe the white penguin be at a disadvantage because its feathers get worn and loose their insulating properties or ability to glide smoothly through the water.


    February 10, 2012 at 12:56 am

  2. Melanin is indeed important for feather strengths. I always wonder how penguins who spend a fair bit of time on their bellies have solved this problem as their bellies are white.
    The penguin in this image is however not a leucistic one as it has not lost all its melanin. Otherwise all feathers would be white. It is possibly a dilute one as the pattern is still apparent but the pigments are not produced in the normal quantities. Hence there is a reduction in the intensity of the colour.


    July 2, 2013 at 11:10 pm

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