Snowflake the albino gorilla is the product of inbreeding, according to new research. The only albino gorilla ever known, Snowflake lived in the Barcelona Zoo as a favorite attraction of visitors.
The reasons for Snowflake's mutation was long debated, but the real answer has just been found by sequencing the late gorilla's DNA, collected from frozen blood. Spanish researchers concluded by performing these tests that Snowflake's parents were also his uncle and niece.
He was a Western lowland gorilla first captured by villagers in Equatorial Guinea in 1966. A number of gorillas had been destroying crops, and the farmers killed several adults of the species. Then, they saw a small white baby gorilla who was clinging to his mother's dead body. That was Snowflake. After being sold to a professor in Barcelona and going through a period of adaptation, the animal was sent to the Barcelona Zoo.
When checking for identical strings of DNA code that would suggest inbreeding, 12 percent of the genes from both parents matched, suggesting a coupling between an uncle and niece. Other possibilities include grandparent and grandchild, niece/nephew, uncle/aunt or half-siblings.
Lowland gorillas are not normally known to mate with family members, but they may be forced to do so as their habitat dwindles.
"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 [shared blood]," Tomas Marques-Bonet of the University of Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain, said.
Marques-Bonet compared the DNA sequence in Snowflake's blood, comparing it to known mutations that cause albinism in human beings. A change to the gene SLC45A2 in Snowflake's blood (inherited from both his parents) turned out to be the cause behind the gorilla's lack of pigment. The same gene is known to cause similar characteristics in horses, mice, chickens and one type of fish.
The sequencing of Snowflake's DNA was only one part of a much larger study by Marques-Bonet and his team to document how much genetic variety there is among apes in the wild compared to humans.
Snowflake passed away in 2003 of skin cancer at the age of 40 after fathering 22 non-albino children.