Snowflake, the Rare Albino Gorilla, Was Inbred: Uncle and Niece Mated

First Posted: Jun 18, 2013 11:50 AM EDT

Snowflake was a zoo celebrity in Spain. With his pure white fur and pink skin, the rare albino gorilla was quite the sight to see until he died of skin cancer in 2003. Now, though, scientists may have tracked down the reason behind his rare albinism. Snowflake may have been the result of inbreeding--the copulation between a niece and an uncle.

Before his death, Snowflake was a fixture at the Barcelona zoo that he called home. The gorilla was actually born in the wild. Captured in 1966 by villagers in Equatorial Guinea, he then lived the rest of his days in captivity. Although most gorillas in the wild live until only 25, Snowflake managed to hold on until he was between 38 and 40 years old. He fathered 22 offspring with three different females, though none of them were albino, according to the AP.

Several studies have attempted to find out exactly why Snowflake was as white as his namesake. Yet scientists gained little ground when it came to discovering what caused his color-free complexion. In order to get a closer look at Snowflake's unique DNA, Spanish researchers sequenced the gorilla's entire genome. They used frozen blood that had been preserved after Snowflake's death and were able to narrow down the cause of the gorilla's albinism to a single gene: SLC45A2. This gene was, in fact, inherited from both of his parents, according to Discovery News.

In order to see if inbreeding may have been responsible for the rare occurrence of this gene in both of his parents, the scientists then examined the gorilla's DNA for identical stretches. In the end, they found that 12 percent of the genes from Snowflake's mom and dad matched--a number that points to the fact that a niece and uncle probably mated.

It's unusual to see inbreeding among gorillas. Yet inbreeding may indeed increase in wild populations--especially as their habitat continues to shrink. Western lowland gorillas are struggling to disperse as they lose more and more of their ecosystem. This means that it's possible that we'll see an increase in inbred gorillas in the future.

"If we are reducing much more the space that they have now, it is likely that they will be forced to stay in the group and that will increase the consanguinity," or shared blood, said Tomas Marques-Bonet, the lead researcher, in an interview with Discovery News.

The findings are published in the journal BMC Genomics.

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