An albino gorilla that lived in the Barcelona Zoo for 37 years was a product of inbreeding, new research shows. Snowflake, who was born in Equatorial Guinea and captured in 1966, was the first white gorilla ever known.
Spanish researchers have sequenced the gorilla’s genetic mutation to discover that he was probably the offspring of an uncle and niece. Using Snowflake’s frozen blood, researchers compared the albino gorilla’s genome sequence with those of humans and non-albino gorillas. Tomas Marques-Bonet, of the Institut de Biologia Evolutiva, and his team discovered Snowflake’s albinism comes from a single gene called SLC45A2 that he inherited from both of his parents, LiveScience reports.
Researchers then found 12 percent of the genes from Snowflake’s mother and father matched, which most likely means that the albino gorilla’s parents were uncle and niece.
Snowflake was a Western lowland gorilla, a gorilla subspecies that lives in Central Africa. Up until now, no one has reported inbreeding among the subspecies, Marques-Bonet told LiveScience. But other subspecies have been known to turn to inbreeding, especially if they have small populations or habitats.
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"If we are reducing much more the space that they have now, it is more likely that they will be forced to stay in the group and that will increase the consanguinity," or shared blood, Marques-Bonet said.
Albinism is an inherited condition where a lack of melanin production results in little or no pigment in the skin, hair and eyes. In the past, albinism has been found in mice, horses, chickens and a species of fish.
Snowflake’s skin was sensitive to sun and he had poor eyesight, making it hard for him to survive in the wild, Barcelona Zoo said. During his nearly four decades at the zoo, Snowflake formed a family of his own. He had 21 children with three different females. In 2003, Snowflake died of skin cancer. The famous primate appeared on postcards all over Barcelona, he was the main character in a novel and had memoirs written in his name.