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White Deer (What Time is it in Nature)

December 27, 2014

We recently reported our first ever Bobcat at Prairie Ridge, but we’ve had another exciting mammal visiting our grounds recently!  Meet the albino White-tailed Deer:

White deer

This pale fellow has been spotted on the grounds several times over the last few weeks, but has been reported in the area for the last month or so.  As you probably know, White-tailed Deer tend to be brown and blend in with their environment, but this young buck is completely white.  Based on the color of his eyes, it is clear that he is an albino.

Albinism tends to occur due to a genetic defect.  Albino individuals have inherited two recessive genes that result in an abnormality in the production of an enzyme called tyrosinase.   Tyrosinase is responsible for generating skin and eye pigments, called melanin, from the amino acid tyrosine.  Anything that reduces or eliminates the production of tyrosinase reduces or eliminates the production of the melanin pigments responsible for coloring hair, eyes, and skin.  As a result, albino individuals tend to be very pale with white hair and very pale blue eyes.  There is so little pigment in the eyes of some albino individuals that the retina shows through the iris, giving the eyes a reddish appearance.

Because they have reduced pigment in their eyes, albino individuals often have vision problems.  The iris of the eye is responsible for adjusting the amount of light that enters the eye, but it does so by blocking the light coming through the eye with melanin pigments.  Many albinos do not have enough pigment in their irises for them to regulate the light entering their eyes properly.  This can cause a severe sensitivity to light, scattering of the light entering the eye that results in reduced sharpness, or even light-induced damage to the retina.  It is quite possible that our pale deer cannot see very clearly, if at all.

Apart from their visual problems and a need for strong sun protection to prevent burns and skin cancers, albino humans tend to live fairly normal lives biologically speaking (though there is rampant discrimination against albino individuals in many cultures).  Other albino animals are less fortunate.  Prey species tend to blend in well with their environments, but albino individuals stand out.  This puts them at much greater risk of predation because they cannot hide well.  Many predators also rely on camouflage to hide them from prey as they approach.  Overall, albino animals in nature tend to have shorter life spans than other members of their species and many of them die young.  The deer visiting Prairie Ridge has antlers, which means he’s been pretty lucky so far.

There’s never any guarantee that you’ll see any particular animal at Prairie Ridge, but keep an eye out for the white White-tailed Deer on your next visit.  He’s been spotted several times, and you can’t miss him if he’s in the area.  If you do see him, he may get pretty close.  Please remember that this is a wild animal and keep your distance!  This will help keep you – and the white deer – safe while on the grounds.

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photo by Jan Weems)

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