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Team Captures Photographs Of Rare White Seal

May 20, 2009

Researchers have confirmed the first ever sighting of a white southern elephant seal on a sub-Antarctic beach, BBC News reported.

Unusual colors are more common in eared seals such as sea lions and fur seals, but such a thing is rare for true seals, a group that includes elephant seals.

The journal Polar Biology published details of the seal, which has creamy white fur but normal brown eyes and nose.

Ryan Reisinger of the University of Pretoria in South Africa, one of the researchers who discovered the animal on Marion Island, said it is a true rarity in a species that is so well known.

“This is the first confirmed case of leucism in the species,” said Reisinger.

The young female white seal is leucistic, rather than albinistic.

Leucistic animals have little pigment and appear white all over, but with dark colored eyes; while albinism, a condition that is inherited, causes a lack of pigment in just the eyes, skin and hair.

The white seal spotted by researchers has a uniformly creamy white coat of fur, with normal dark brown eyes and nose. Its whiskers, eyebrows and fingernails on its flippers are also light colored in contrast to the species’ usual dark color.

Reisinger believes they may be the first ever to provide detailed evidence of such an animal anywhere.

The seal was spotted in August 2008 on Whale Bird beach on Marion Island, which lies in the sub-Antarctic region of the Indian Ocean. The team again saw the seal several days later and was able to get close enough to confirm its leucism, tag it and take a skin biopsy.

Reisinger says it’s impossible to say precisely how rare the animal is and they estimate it to be between one and two years old.

The researchers said there have been a few rare previous records of lighter colored elephant seals, but none had been confirmed as leucestic.

Five unusually colored Antarctic fur seals were seen last year on Livingston Island, including one partially leucistic pup that had fur like a tiger’s stripes and another piebald individual, the first time such coat patterns have been seen.

Researchers also spotted the first known leucestic South American sea lion near the Magellan Strait in Chile in February 2007.

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