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Planet Earth

100: Mutant White Elephant Spotted in Sri Lanka

By Eric LevinJanuary 3, 2005 6:00 AM

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A white elephant is usually something novel that nobody knows what to do with. But when a real white elephant was discovered roaming Sri Lanka’s Ruhunu National Park in July, researchers knew exactly what to do: Trumpet the news and monitor the pachyderm, an albino form rarely seen in natural environs.

The elephant, which has pale beige skin, is a female about 11 years old. She lives in a herd of about 17 adult female and juvenile elephants, all with gray skin. Although a few tourists and locals had reported seeing her before, the first confirmed sighting was by H. K. Janaka, a field researcher at Sri Lanka’s Centre for Conservation and Research, which has been studying the country’s roughly 4,000 elephants for 12 years. The elephant has been dubbed “Sue,” which means “white” in Sinhalese.

Sue will be of mating age soon, if she isn’t pregnant already. But because the gene that produces albinism is recessive, she won’t produce an albino unless she mates with an albino male. That may not be as unlikely as it seems. More and more elephant habitat has been converted to farmland in recent years, so the hungry creatures tend to forage on it—behavior which gets them shot at a rate of three a week. If herds decline and inbreeding increases (which experts say hasn’t happened yet), mutations like the one that produces albinism—a failure of the body to generate pigment—could increase.

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