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A portrait of the albino gorilla Snowflake.

Snowflake was the only albino western lowland gorilla known to man.

Photograph by Arthur Riopelle, National Geographic

Lara Sorokanich

National Geographic

Published June 18, 2013

Snowflake the gorilla gained notoriety for being the only known albino of his species. Now the late ape is making headlines again over the recent postmortem discovery that he was inbred.

Snowflake, a western lowland gorilla, was born in the wild in Equatorial Guinea (map). In 1966 he was taken to the Barcelona Zoo in Barcelona, Spain, where he lived until his death from skin cancer in 2003.

Since then, scientists at Barcelona's Institut de Biologia Evolutiva at the University of Pompeu Fabra have been studying Snowflake's frozen blood and using it to sequence his genome.

In a new study, they announced a twofold discovery about Snowflake's genes that may help scientists understand how he became the only known albino of his species. An animal that does not produce melanin, resulting in little or no color in the skin, hair, and eyes, is considered an albino. (See more pictures of albino animals.)

Unusual Combination

First, the scientists pinpointed the exact genetic cause of Snowflake's albinism—a gene known as SCL45A2, which had previously been reported in albino mice, horses, and chickens, said study leader Tomas Marques-Bonet.

Second, and possibly more important, the scientists found that Snowflake was the result of inbreeding—an unusual practice for his species—which was likely the reason for the gorilla's unique coloration, according to the study, published May 31 in BMC Genomics.

The albino mutation is recessive, Marques-Bonet explained, meaning it becomes visible only if both parents pass the mutation on to a child. One of Snowflake's ancestors was likely the original carrier.

Because his parents were related—an uncle and a niece by the researchers' guess—their DNA contained some of the same genes, one of which happened to be the rare albinism mutation. (Get a genetics overview.)

Both the mutant gene and the inbreeding are rare occurrences for western lowland gorillas, and the combination that produced Snowflake isn't likely to happen again anytime soon.

"This explains why only one albino western lowland gorilla has ever been found," Marques-Bonet told National Geographic.

"Snowflake was the conjunction of two very rare events."

Follow Lara Sorokanich on Twitter.

7 comments
Donald Reynolds
Donald Reynolds

I have held, over an extended period, that incest is relative.


Linda Thornburg
Linda Thornburg

Saw this beautiful creature 1970 at Barcelona Zoo.  One of those memories that remain forever.

Stephen L.
Stephen L.

The Albino gene is recessive in most species and would be rare in the wild due to natural selection, I could have told them all this information without sequencing the DNA, Albino humans are also recessive.

If he had been mated to a female in captivity all of his offspring would be 100% het for albino but all look like "Normal" gorillas.

If his offspring bred together or back to him then you have a shot at producing another albino gorilla.

100% het albino bred to albino would for every one born yield a 50% chance of being albino, so one out of two should be albino.

100% het to 100% het should yield lower results around 25% per offspring and yield possible het albino gorilas. 

Dave Burton
Dave Burton

The skin cancer that killed him was probably the result of his lack of protective melanin.

Bellz Webster
Bellz Webster

He's gorgeous. The colour suits him. It's amazing what can be found out these days with dna.

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