Xinhua / Xinhua News Agency / Getty Images
An all-white panda has been documented and photographed for the first time ever, The New York Times reported Monday.
“You are looking at the first-ever photo of a WHITE giant panda in the world,” The People’s Daily China announced in a tweet Saturday.
You are looking at the first-ever photo of a WHITE giant panda in the world. This #panda was spotted by a surveillance camera at a natural reserve in SW China's Sichuan in April. Scientists believe the color change is a result of albino and the panda is in good health. pic.twitter.com/KWBr4Fl6TD— People's Daily, China (@PDChina) May 25, 2019
In mammals, albinism occurs when an individual inherits one or more mutated genes from both parents that interfere with the body’s production of melanin, the main pigment that determines the color of skin, fur, and eyes. The production of melanin occurs within melanocytes, specialized cells that are present but not fully functional in albino mammals.
Non-mammal animals can also be albino, but because they can produce other pigments in addition to melanin, they may not appear fully white. Even albino mammals can show some color if their melanin-making genes haven’t been totally damaged.
The condition has been recorded in other species of bear, according to The New York Times, and brown and white pandas have been spotted in the northwestern Chinese region of Qinling, but this all-white panda is unique.
“I personally think it’s quite random for it to be discovered, since albinism manifests itself so infrequently,” Dr. Li Sheng, who works on the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), told The New York Times. “This was recorded just in time.”
Albinism does not impact the overall health of animals, but it can make it harder for them to survive, according to National Geographic. That’s because albino animals often have poor eyesight, which makes finding food more difficult. They also sometimes have a hard time finding mates and can stand out to predators or poachers. This panda seems to be doing well, however.
“The panda looked strong and his steps were steady, a sign that the genetic mutation may not have quite impeded its life,” Li said, according to CNN.
The panda is one to two years old, and the photographs did not reveal its sex, researchers said, according to The Guardian.
Albinism is a recessive condition, which means both parents must have the gene and pass it onto their offspring in order for it to manifest. Scientists from the China Conservation and Research Centre therefore believe the condition must be present in the Wolong panda population. Authorities plan to install more cameras to track the panda’s movements and see if it passes the trait on to its children.
“If we can capture the next generation, the research value will be even greater,” researchers said, as The Guardian reported.
There are around 1,900 giant pandas in the wild, a 2016 report from the IUCN found. Because of conservation efforts by the Chinese government, the species’ status was changed from “endangered” to “vulnerable” in the same report. The Chinese government, however, objected to the reclassification, arguing that pandas are still imperiled because their habitat is limited to disconnected wilderness areas, making it harder for them to reproduce, The New York Times reported.