We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

100: Mutant White Elephant Spotted in Sri Lanka

By Eric Levin
Jan 3, 2005 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:36 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

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.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.