Caturday felid: white lions

An alert reader from the Netherlands has informed me that four white lions were just put on view in the Ouwehands zoo.

Here are the beautiful cats; you can see more pictures here (click on “volgende” to advance the photos):

White lions have been reported sporadically for several hundred years, but appeared in recent times in the 1920’s in the Timbavati Game Reserve in South Africa. They probably arose as a genetic result of matings between relatives (“inbreeding”), which exposes recessive alleles.  According to The White Lion Protection Trust, because of their rarity and beauty these lions were selectively hunted as trophies and captured for breeding.  The mutant form apparently disappeared from the wild in the 1990s, but is now being reintroduced from zoos and animal farms.


White lions carry a recessive mutation affecting coat color (this means that the mating of two white lions will produce only moar white lions).  The condition caused by the mutation is called “leucism.” It’s not the same mutation that causes albinism in humans and other vertebrates, for the lions have fully pigmented retinas (unlike “normal” albinos, the lions’ eyes are not pink).  And, just as true albinos occur in many vertebrate species, so do true leucistic mutants.

Several sites report that white lions don’t show any noticeable decrease of survival in the wild; reports of physical defects in mutant lions may simply reflect the fact that they’re inbred (to keep a line of white lions going, you have to mate them to each other, though you can outcross them to regular lions and recover white lions in in the second generation).

The mutant lions are often given a subspecies designation, considered members of Panthera leo krugeri (the subspecies name reflects Kruger Park, where they’re also found).  But this is incorrect, for white lions aren’t members of a genetically and geographically distinct interbreeding population—which is how biologists define a subspecies.  These lions simply share a single mutation affecting pigmentation.  Calling them members of a subspecies is no more correct than calling all human albinos, or humans with blue eyes, members of a distinct subspecies. 

The  coat coloration varies among individuals, sometimes having tinges of orange (I call this the “creamsicle” phenotype).  This dude is pretty white:

Here’s a video that shows the actual birth of a white lion cub:

And some cute cubs (there’s no sound until the guy is talking):

As I said, leucism occurs in many species, for lots of vertebrates carry the gene that can mutate to that condition. Here’s an American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) with leucism:

And a leucistic American crow (Corvus brachyrynchos):

h/t: Jacobus

16 Comments

  1. daveau
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    That pale male just before the video is stunning. And the normal reaction is to kill him and have him stuffed?

    • Posted February 19, 2011 at 7:21 am | Permalink

      Missed seeing your comment while writing mine– my feelings *exactly*!

      • Rottweiler
        Posted August 23, 2012 at 12:36 am | Permalink

        daveau, that’s humans for you.

  2. Posted February 19, 2011 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    White lion cubs gamboling in a field! OMG–I am melting all over the floor… kawaiiiii… and the white crow is beautiful! I can imagine his feathers being reserved for the Medicine Man, and Native American myths being made about him…

  3. Rod
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    Would this be the mechanism by which polar bears developed?
    It obviously has some clear advantages in their environment, but its usefulness to lions in the savannah is not clear… are most lion prey animals colour-blind?

  4. Jack van Beverningk
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    It’s good they don’t have a “Lion Cam” at that zoo, else I would frantically switch between the eagles and the lions all day, and not get any work done.
    They ARE stunningly beautiful.
    Gooood kittehs!

    • Posted February 19, 2011 at 7:24 am | Permalink

      I had just that thought the other day–that we need more (X)Cams. FalconCam, OtterCam, LionCam, MustangCam, WolfCam, FoxCam, HummingbirdCam… and none of us would ever, as you note, get a *thing* done!

  5. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    You had me until that crow, that is all wrong. Muss bi a dove, kthxbai.

    [Seriously, I can just see that it can be a crow. Maybe it is the tendency of birds to have colorful plumage that gets my wires crossed?]

  6. Kevin
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    We had a conversation a while back about albinistic squirrels — I live near a substantial population of them. There’s even a White Squirrel Festival in Brevard, NC every year celebrating the little critters.

    Is this the same mutation?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted February 19, 2011 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      Or how about this: if there was a “god gene”, do Gnus have a mootation (maybe a deletion)?

    • Sven DiMilo
      Posted February 19, 2011 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

      The white tree squirrels I have seen have been true albinos, no melanin at all and therefore pink eyes.

  7. Posted February 19, 2011 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Isn’t the deliberate inbreeding of zoo animals just to preserve a trait we find pretty kind of cruel? White tigers have much higher rates of birth defects, I know; does the same not apply to white lions?

    Not denying that they are extremely beautiful, and certainly the ones pictured look fine and healthy.

  8. Gayle K. Stone
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    Regarding the mutation; Darwin in Chapter 20 of The Descent of Man, Colour of the Skin and Coyne in WEIT, The Sticky Question of Race, admitted there is little evidence to explain the difference in races related to skin color. It would be great if experts on mutations causing color changes could produce a theory using leucism, albinism and abundism/pseudomelanism to refute Baptist, Racist Richard Furman and Billy Graham’s claim that God specially created blacks to be slaves.

    • Posted February 19, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      While knowing more about the genetics and adaptive value of leucistic, etc. mutations would be great, I don’t think we need to know much biology to refute such claims.

    • Posted February 19, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

      Higher melanin = higher protection against skin cancer. Adaptive for places with high sunlight, ie. equatorial regions.

      Lower melanin = higher rates of vitamin D synthesis. Adaptive for places with low sunlight, ie. northern Europe/Asia.

      Simples.

  9. Jay Bee
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    Actually, its being recessive means that lions may “carry” its genes without showing – two carriers can bear a leucistic offspring (~25%) and a carrier and a leucistic can bear a leucistic offspring (~50%).

    Albinism does exist in lions; it’s not the same as leucism, though – albinism is caused by a different defect, and can have somewhat different effects, but can potentially affect pretty much all vertebrates.


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  2. […] An alert reader from the Netherlands has informed me that four white lions were just put on view in the Ouwehands zoo. Here are the beautiful cats; you can see more pictures here (click on "volgende" to advance the photos): White lions have been reported sporadically for several hundred years, but appeared in recent times in the 1920's in the Timbavati Game Reserve in South Africa. They probably arose as a genetic result of matings between relati … Read More […]

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