Near a watering hole in a quiet valley in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park on February 17, photographer Sergio Pitamitz hoped to capture some images of migrating zebras. As dozens of the animals slowly meandered into the clearing, he spotted something unusual in the middle of the herd: A pop of white.
“At first I thought it was a zebra that had rolled in the dust,” says Pitamitz. But as he watched the animal wade into the water and start drinking, he noticed that the “dust” wasn’t washing off. Excitedly, he snapped away.
The golden-colored zebra likely has partial albinism, a condition very rarely seen in zebras, confirm several scientists, including Greg Barsh, a geneticist at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology. (See pictures of zebras in National Geographic magazine.)
Partial albinism means that the animal has significantly less melanin—a natural pigment found in skin—than typical zebras. As a result, stripes appear pale in color.
“Nothing is known about albinism in zebras,” says Barsh by email. The animals are so rarely found that, despite some reported sightings in the wild, they’ve only been confirmed to exist in captivity. A few dozen partially albino zebras live on a private reserve in Mount Kenya National Park. Another, named Zoe, was born with the condition at a zoo in Hawaii and spent her life at a sanctuary until her death in 2017.
He says the sighting indicates that the genetic variant responsible for partial albinism may be distributed more widely, in and around Kenya, than we were aware of before.
JUST ONE OF THE GANG
Pitamitz’s photographs “provide confirmation that animals with the condition can survive in the wild [and] that they are seemingly accepted by ‘normal’ zebras,” says Barsh.
Ren Larison, a biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has received funding from the National Geographic Society, notes that the “blonde” male zebras at the private reserve in Mount Kenya behave “as stallions with harems”—the standard zebra grouping of a single male and several females.
And in the wild, other types of differently colored zebras (like spotted zebras, and zebras that appear to have extra black stripes) also fit in fine with the herd, says Barsh. These types of unusual-looking zebras lay their heads on each other, mate, and generally do normal zebra stuff.
But while social acceptance isn’t an issue, Barsh and Larison say it’s possible that partially albino wild zebras could face challenges when it comes to self-protection. While we don’t yet know precisely every function that zebras’ bold stripes serve (there isn’t any evidence that stripes deter predators or act as camouflage, for example) there is strong evidence that their stripes ward off biting flies.
Tim Caro, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of California, Davis, who has extensively studied the relationship between zebra stripes and biting flies, says it’s possible the lightly colored stripes wouldn’t deter flies as successfully as regular black stripes.
Although we don’t know for sure how dark stripes have to be to successfully thwart flies, the fact that so few golden zebras seem to exist indicates that the trait is likely harmful in some way, says Caro.
IN THE DARK
Full or partial albinism has been highly studied in domestic animals: humans, mice, horses, and guinea pigs, for example. But what we know about albinism in domestic animals just isn’t useful when trying to understand the effects albinism might have on surviving in the wild, says Barsh. (Read about a rare white giraffe and other unusually pale animals.)
It’s the challenge, he says, of trying to understand an abnormality in an animal we can barely get close to. Although the captive population in Kenya are sufficient for studying genetics, he says they’re pretty skittish, and it’s tough to collect blood samples.
For Sergio Pitamitz, whose photos have helped further our understanding of albinism in wild zebras, photographing the golden zebra was like he’d won the lottery—for the second time. Two years ago, he happened to photograph an extremely rare black wildcat in Kenya.
“Wildlife photography is about passion [and] patience,” says Sergio. “But sometimes luck helps!”