Colouration and chromatic abnormalities

Kruger National Park | May 2016

The colouration of animals usually serves to camouflage them in the environment in which they live. This enables them to hide away from predators or to enable the predators to sneak up to their prey without being noticed. In order to hide themselves many animals make use of either ‘disruptive colouration’ or background pattern matching’.

In the case of disruptive coloration animals often have strongly contrasting colours and patterns (often in the form of striping or blotching), which tends to break up the outline of the animals, enabling it to hide more effectively. Examples of disruptive colouration can be seen on animals such as kudus, where the white stripes break up the outline of the antelope against the bushes or, for example, on leopards and cheetahs. The rosettes on leopards or the spots on cheetahs serve the same function of breaking up the predators’ outlines and enable them to blend into their environment. Background pattern matching is evident in animals such as lions where the colour of their fur blends in well with the grass in which they often hide.

Another form of colouration or patterning that animals may use to hide better is known as ‘countershading’. This is particularly evident in many antelope, of which impala is a prime example. Counter-shading is the pattern of animal colouration in which an animal’s pigmentation is darker on the upper side and lighter on the underside of the body. When light falls on a uniformly coloured object from above (e.g. from the sun), it makes the upper side appear lighter and the underside darker, grading from one to the other.

This pattern of light and shade makes the object appear solid, and therefore acts as a visual cue which makes the object easier to detect. Counter-shading reduces the ease of detection of predators and prey by counterbalancing the effects of self-shadowing. In the case of impalas the counter-shading is evident in the three colour stripes. The back is dark, the flanks slightly lighter and the belly is white. This pattern of colouration counteracts the effects of shadows produced by the sun.

On occasion specific individual animals may be found that have chromatic aberrations or unusual colours that do not serve to hide the animal. Examples of this include albinism, leucism and melanism. These aberrations are usually caused by recessive genes that give
them the unusual colours. It’s rare to find animals with these colour aberrations in the wild as they tend not to blend in with their
environments, thus making them easier targets (in the case of prey species) or make it more difficult to sneak up to their prey (in the case of predators).

Albinism is a strange genetic disorder characterized by the complete or partial absence of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes. Animals that are albinos are white in colour and usually have red or pink eyes (the blood in the eyes shows through).

Leucism is different from albinism in that the melanin is absent partially but the eyes retain their usual colour or are lighter in colour (but not pink or red). Some leucistic animals are white or pale because of pigment cell defects. Leucistic animals usually do still have some patches of darker colour, particularly in the lips and eyes. Some animals may be partially leucistic, where pigmentation is lacking only in certain areas on the body. At the moment we have a female impala on the concession that is partially leucistic. In her case her flanks are white (not light brown) and her eyes are also very pale.

In the larger portion of the Shish Pride there is a young male lion that is leucistic. He is a white lion. White lions are very rare in the wild (there are estimated to be only approximately ten white lions in the wild, in the world). In white lions the white colour is caused by a recessive gene known as the colour inhibitor gene (or ‘chutiya’) and is distinct from the albinism gene. These white lions vary from nearly-white through to blonde.

According to traditional African oral history, white lions have been seen in the Timbavati area (bordering onto the Kruger National Park) for centuries. It’s said that a special white lion cub was born during Queen Numbi’s reign, over 400 years ago, in an event heralded by a star that fell to Earth. In the 1970s, white lions were once again discovered and became the focus of several books, most notably Chris McBride’s, The White Lions of the Timbavati, which was published in 1977. – Wikipedia.

At some point it is possible that lions with the white genes moved from the Timbavati area to the Satara/Lebombo area. This could have happened when some young male lions, with the recessive white gene, reached sexual maturity and were forced to leave their pride’s territory by the dominant males of the area. Over years this recessive white gene was carried in the genes of the offspring of the Timbavati lions. When a male carrying this recessive gene mates with a female carrying the recessive gene one or some of the cubs produced could be white lions.

The white lion from the Shish pride has now become famous and sightings of him are often reported by the public when the pride enters or leaves our concession and is seen on the public roads. We are lucky enough to see this famous animal on a fairly regular basis, although as a male lion who is getting to the age where he will have to leave his father’s territory, we are expecting that he will soon have to leave the area.

Recently we located a pale or ‘white’ leopard on the concession. This leopard had almost none of the typical orange colouration of normal leopards, although he does have the normal black rosettes. He is not one of our usual leopards and is fairly shy of the vehicles. We believe that he is a nomadic male that has left his mother’s territory and is busy trying to find an area that he can call his own. Since we already have dominant males in our area it is very unlikely that he will settle here.

Melanism is almost the opposite of albinism or leucism. Melanistic animals have an unusually high level of melanin pigmentation, resulting in a darker appearance. The animal known as a ‘black panther’ is actually either a black / melanistic leopard or jaguar. When one looks at a black panther in good light one can actually see the rosettes as darker patches in the black fur. Black panthers are generally only found in central African or South American jungles, where they blend in well with the deep shadows. There are rumours that a black panther was recently seen at the bottom of the Blyde River Canyon, to the west of the Kruger Park, although this has not been photographically substantiated.

Two other chromatic abnormalities found sometimes in animals include Xanthochroism and Erythrism.

Xanthochroism is where there is an excess of yellow pigmentation and is sometimes found in birds such as the yellow morphs of the black-collared barbets or the crimson-breasted shrikes.

Erythrism refers to a strange and unusual reddish pigmentation of an animal’s fur, skin, hair or feathers. A few years ago a leopard was seen in a game reserve in a province of South Africa that had reddish-brown rosettes on a pink background – a true ‘pink panther’!