Wow -- A Tuxedo-less Penguin!

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A unique leucistic Adélie penguin, Pygoscelis adeliae,
photographed by the Mawson Hut Foundation team in Antarctica.

Image: Brett Jarrett (Mawsons Hut Foundation) [larger]

An individual Adélie penguin, Pygoscelis adeliae, that lacks most of its normal pigment was recently photographed by Australian biologists near Granholm Hut in Antarctica. Penguins and other birds that lack pigmentation are referred to as "leucistic" by ornithologists. According to the Australian biologists, these abnormal white birds rarely survive until adulthood (although other experts disagree*) because they attract predators and may not be able to find a mate. Anyway, the penguin that was photographed is an adult.

Adélie Penguins are common along the entire Antarctic coast and nearby islands. Aside from the storm petrel, they are the most southerly distributed of all seabirds. During December, which is the warmest month of the year in Antarctica, the female typically lays two eggs, which are either brown or green in color. The parents take turns incubating the eggs -- one goes to sea to feed while the incubating parent fasts. Adélie penguins feed on Antarctic krill, supplemented by Antarctic silverfish and squid during the nesting season. The adults return to the sea with their offspring in March.

Rhonda Pike, who is an Australian Antarctic Division biologist, said that only one all-white penguin has been observed over a number of breeding seasons in a population of 4,000.

"We have a population of tagged birds out there and we've never tagged any of the leucistic birds," said Pike. "So we don't know if it's the same one coming back year after year, but yeah, one out of 4,000."

*UPDATE: According to a reader of mine, Tony Pym, leucistic penguins are not as unlikely to survive to adulthood as the reporter stated in his story. More pictures of leucistic penguins from a number of different species can be seen here.


ABCNews (image, quotes).

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He's got a tuxedo, it's just cream-colored. He's the Cab Calloway of penguins!

For some reason it looks like the animal is colder without the black. :\

Nice photo. There are a number of records of leucistic penguins from around Antarctica. One individual near Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula returned for at least 8 years and maybe more making her at least 11 years old.
You might think that white would make it harder for predators to spot but there really are no land predators for adult penguins. Nearly all predation of adult penguins happens at sea where the countershading of black above and white below protects the bird when the predator is above or below the penguin. This is a pattern you see on most marine animals. For more information on leucism in penguin on the peninsula see this paper by my fellow researchers Steve Forrest and Ron Naveen:

By John Carlson (not verified) on 09 Jan 2008 #permalink

Neat looking bird!

But I also have to add a few other items. This bird cannot accurately be described as "lacking all pigment". The bill is black. The iris seems to be black.

Secondly, most predation of adult Adelie penguins probably occurs in the water (leopard seals, killer whales) rather than on the snow. See "Leopard Seal Predation of Adelie Penguins, R. L. Penney & George Lowry, Ecology, Vol. 48, No. 5. (Sep., 1967), pp. 878-882. So a pale plumage might be more visible in the water; thus explaining the observation that these leucisitic birds rarely survive until adulthood.

Finally, one of my grad school buddies worked at Palmer Station on thermoregulation in Adelie Penguins for quite a few years. I sent him this link, and he wrote back "When I was working at Palmer station we had one of these birds, a female nicknamed 'Blondie'. Blondie was a successful breeder, with a normal male, for several years and had normal offspring."

By Albatrossity (not verified) on 09 Jan 2008 #permalink

Hi everybody

From me also, a few corrections to the text above:

a) Leucism is a condition characterised by reduced pigmentation. The Adelie here can be called amelanistic (lacking melanin) or to be accurate it is melanic-schizochroistic (where there is a loss of the eumelanins).

This bird has lost also the black colouration from the bill (an Adelie usually has a red bill with a black tip - the bill appears from the photo above to be all-red) and from the claws (which would normally be black).

(b) To say that these birds 'rarely survive' is subjective. John Carlson above records a leucistic penguin returning to Palmer Station for eight years and Albatrossity's posting records another that was 'a successful breeder for several years'. Forest and Naveen (2000) say 'several individuals (had) long and successful reproductive histories'. One of the abnormal Adelies that I photographed returned for (at least) four seasons to the rookery, and an albinistic individual came back certainly for three consecutive years. Leucism as a trait survives due to successful breeding by leucistic birds.

(c) Technically, the most southerly seabird has to be the Emperor Penguin that breeds the furthest south (also walking/tobogganing 'inland'). Adelie colonies are further 'north' but feeding birds are 'down' amongst the Emperors. The tiny Wilson's Storm-petrels are found in this hostile environment also. For many days around the Ross Ices Shelf these were the only three bird species I saw.

(d) Forest and Naveen (2000) thought leucism in Gentoos may be as high as 1:20,000. Obviously these individual birds are very visible and noticeable in the colony. I wrote to say that these odd penguins are not that rare therefore (but I didn't say that leucistic birds are not as rare as reported in the story above i.e. 1:4000)

Hope that helps
All the best
Tony Pym

In fact this grayish-yellowish color is best described by isabellinism. There is a curious folks tale about the name, which is discussed in EVERITT and MISKELLY (2003; PDF).

Although that particular Isabella is not at the origin of the term, French and German have a similar folks tale about Isabella and Ferdinand from Spain and the siege for Granada ending in 1492.

It looks like Blondie is more popular than I knew. The penguin that I mentioned is the same "Blondie" noted by albatrossity and one of the birds Tony mentioned in the Forrest and Naveen paper.
I have posted a few photos of a pair of albino Adelie Penguin chicks I photographed in early 2007 on Heroina Island on my blog here:

I also wanted to note that Adelie Penguin eggs are rarely brown or reen but are generally white when first laid but often turning a pinkish brown as they get covered in penguin quano. Also, the adults don't return to the sea with their chicks, they just stop feeding them and leave to feed before they molt. The chick have to learn to find and catch food entirely on their own.

By John Carlson (not verified) on 15 Jan 2008 #permalink