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06/14/2013

Snowflake the albino gorilla was inbred, genome sequencing shows

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Snowflake, the albino gorilla that lived in a Barcelona zoo for 40 years. New research shows he was inbred. (CREDIT: ZOO BARCELONA)

 

The world's only known albino gorilla, Snowflake, was a product of inbreeding in the wild, according to a new study. 

In a paper published in the journal BMC Genomics, researchers at Barcelona's Institut de Biologia Evolutiva report that Snowflake's sequenced genome shows markers indicating the animal's parents were closely related.

Assuming there was no previous inbreeding, the researchers estimate that Snowflake's parents were either a grandparent and grandchild, half-siblings, or an uncle/aunt and niece/nephew. 

Snowflake was a Western Lowland gorilla who was found by farmers in Equatorial Guinea in 1966.

The farmers killed a pack of gorillas that had been eating their crops. When they went to inspect the dead animals, they found a pure white baby gorilla hanging on to its mother's body, according to the Barcelona Zoo's biography of Snowflake.

The farmer who collected the infant sold it to a professor from Barcelona, who coordinated with other researchers to study the animal.

Snowflake had oculocutaneous albinism, meaning he had white hair and pink skin, as well as very light eyes and trouble with his vision. 

After a period of adaptation, Snowflake was sent to the Barcelona Zoo. He was estimated to be between 1 and 3 years old at the time.

He lived there for nearly 40 years and fathered 22 offpsring in the process, none of whom were albino. 

In 2001, Snowflake began suffering from skin cancer. Zookeepers euthanized him in 2003 when his health deteriorated badly. 

The new study was also the first genome sequencing of a wild-born Western Lowland gorilla -- two other gorillas whose genomes were sequenced, Kwan and Kamilah, were both born in captivity.

The research is also the first genetic evidence of inbreeding in this species of gorilla.

More pictures of Snowflake can be found here, on Zoo Barcelona's website.

Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.

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