It can be difficult to catch a glimpse of giant pandas in the wild. Less than 2,000 of the bears are known to exist in the forests of southwest China, and they are solitary creatures that tend to roam through remote regions. But with the help of an infrared camera, experts were able to capture an image of a rare all-white panda, marking the first time that albinism has been recorded among wild members of the species.
According to Tiffany May of the New York Times, the snowy-white panda was photographed in April at the Wolong National Nature Reserve in Sichuan province. The camera had been set up to monitor wildlife in the area, and while the image it produced is somewhat blurry, scientists could make out the panda’s white fur and reddish eyes—both hallmark signs of albinism. The young bear is believed to be one or two years old, but experts could not determine its sex, reports the Guardian’s Lily Kuo.
Albinism in mammals—including humans—is caused by a rare mutation in one or more genes that govern the body’s production of melanin, the primary pigment that dictates the color of skin, fur and eyes, according to National Geographic’s Jani Actman. In fact, the reason that mammals with albinism sometimes have red or pinkish eyes is because blood vessels typically masked by melanin are visible. The albinism trait is recessive, meaning that it manifests if it is inherited from both parents.
There are drawbacks to being an albino creature in the wild. The condition can cause both sensitivity to sunlight, which makes albino animals susceptible to skin cancer, and vision problems, which can make it difficult for them to find food. Animals with stark-white fur are also more visible to predators and a target of humans on the hunt for exotic animals. In 2017, for instance, an ailing five-year-old albino orangutan had to be rescued from a village in Indonesia, where she was being kept in a cage. She has since been released to the protected Bukit Baka Bukit Raya national park on Borneo, but some worry that she remains vulnerable to poachers.
Fortunately, the white panda appears to be doing well. “Based on the photo, albinism has not affected the life of the white panda much,” Li Sheng of the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, tells May. “It looks quite well, quite strong.”
Prior to the discovery of the all-white panda, brown and white pandas had been known to exist in China’s Qinling region—a quirk also believed to be caused by one or more recessive genes. Now, it seems clear that a “whitening” genetic mutation is present in the panda population of Wolong, officials explain in a statement. The reserve plans to install more infrared cameras to track the panda and its potential offspring; if this unique creature eventually breeds with another panda that carries the albinism gene, more white panda babies could be spotted in the future.