On December 10, the Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter (NLWS) in Smithers, B.C.—halfway between Prince George and Prince Rupert—welcomed a new guest: an baby albino porcupine. Shelter employees were quick to adopt the rare animal, naming it Coconut or Coco for short.
A resident just outside Smithers spotted Coco in their barn chewing through hydraulic cables. “The farmer was not too happy with the new guest,” said Angelika Langen, the shelter’s manager and co-founder.
The farmer phoned the NLWS and employees arrived, relocating Coco to the shelter. Coco is now set up in a private habitat and receives full room service—not a bad life, Langen jokes. “Peanuts are the favourite right now.”
The shelter has yet to determine whether Coco is male or female. A porcupine’s sexual organs are internal rather than external, so, as Langen says, “You can’t just lift up the tail and have a look.” To find out, the shelter would have to tranquilize Coco and perform surgery or an ultrasound. But the process is risky during cold temperatures, so Langen says it isn’t worth performing.
Coco is the first albino animal the shelter has housed. NLWS takes in squirrels, weasels, beavers, lynx, grizzly bears, and a long list of other guests. The shelter’s goal is to rehabilitate orphaned or injured animals, eventually releasing them into the wild.
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Coco will spend the winter at NLWS, and then Langen says the plan is to microchip Coco and release the porcupine back into the wild.
“That way we can follow [Coco] and see what the survival rate of an albino porcupine is because there’s not much known about that,” she says. “We wonder if [albinism] will be detrimental to its survival chances.”
While Coco may be a different colour than its fellow porcupines, it shares the species’ sharp quills, a ready defence against most predators—though the quills tend to prove ineffective against fishers. According to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, fishers will repeatedly attack a porcupine’s head, avoiding the quills, until the animal is subdued.
Coco could be even more susceptible as researchers have found that albino animals stand out to predators thanks to their white coats. During a 1970s study, University of Georgia researcher Donald Kaufman found that in an enclosure with dense vegetation that contained one brown mouse and one albino mouse, owls most often pounced on the albino mouse. Kaufman concluded that it was because the brown mouse was able to better camouflage itself.
Albinism is caused by a recessive gene that prevents certain cells from producing melanin, the pigment that colours an animal’s skin, scales, fur, feathers, and eyes. Both parents must carry the recessive gene to pass albinism down to their offspring, making the genetic condition rare. Brian MacGowan, an extension wildlife specialist at Purdue University, estimated in a report that the rate of albinism in wildlife ranges from one in 20,000 to one in one million. The condition has been identified in over 300 species, including birds, whales, snapping turtles, and freshwater snails.
The most common characteristics of albinism are white pigmentation and pink eyes. Sometimes the animal’s skin or scales will also appear pink. “The pink coloration comes from blood vessels showing through the skin,” said the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in a release.
The genetic condition can cause health complications. Without melanin, the animal’s eyes don’t develop properly, making them more sensitive to light, and affecting their depth perception and ability to focus. This can make it difficult for albino predators to catch prey. The animal’s pale skin also puts it at higher risk of developing melanoma.
In some cases, researchers have found albino animals shunned by other animals within their species, particularly when it comes to mating. Birds, for instance, that attract mates with bright colours would find all-white birds less appealing.
While mating isn’t a concern for Coco at the shelter, the porcupine could have a hard life ahead. But for now, Langen says Coco is settling in just fine.