Albino infant chimpanzee sighted in Sonso
September 07, 2021
For the first time, a chimpanzee with albinism was observed within the Sonso community, in the Budongo Forest Reserve. The baby chimpanzee was born a couple of weeks before observation, his hair completely white and his eyes pink. Individuals with albinism are extremely rare in animals: even in humans, only 1 out of 17,000-20,000 person has albinism. Before this observation, only one other chimpanzee has been seen with a similar condition: Pinkie, held in captivity upon first sighting and until she died. While other cases of chimpanzees with albinism might have occured in the wild, it was not documented, and our observation hence represents an unprecedented opportunity to describe how chimpanzees react to the presence of another chimpanzee with an unusual appearance.
The baby chimpanzee with albinism was first spotted on 15 July by Monday Gideon and Pawel Fedurek, a Field Assistant and a Researcher working at Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS). They observed several adult individuals interacting with the baby and its mother. Most made alarm calls and waa-barks when seeing the infant for the first time, both vocalizations are known to be produced in dangerous situations such as when encountering a snake. The mother fled with her baby to avoid aggression and was not seen after that this day.
Four days later on the 19th of July, Bosco Chandia and Maël Leroux, another Field Assistant and a Researcher working at BCFS, heard screams coming from thick vegetations, indicating an aggression was taking place between chimpanzees. Indeed, the chimpanzees later came out of the dense thickets and had killed the baby chimpanzee with albinism. However, it is important to note that infanticides in the Sonso community are regularly observed, and this baby could have been a victim of infanticide despite its appearance.
It is the reaction towards the corpse of the infant with albinism from other chimpanzees in the community that was, to some extent, different from the reaction they would usually have. Indeed, while some of the behaviours displayed corresponded to the behaviour usually displayed towards dead infants, chimpanzees spent a considerable time inspecting the body, touching the white hair of the infant and smelling the carcass, probably trying to get more information about this chimpanzee. This, in addition to the initial fearful reaction, led us to believe that the chimpanzees perceived this infant as one of them, but with unusual appearance. We could also confirm that these differences were solely due to the coloration of the baby chimp, as an autopsy performed by Dr. Caroline Asiimwe & John Walter Akankwasa, the vet and vet assistant in BCFS, confirmed no other apparent health condition affected the infant.
In conclusion, this observation represents an extremely rare opportunity to investigate chimpanzees behaviour under equally extremely rare social circumstances.
Mael Leroux, Department of Comparative Language Science,
University of Zurich
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