Rarities in the woods
Every now and then, nature comes up with a rare or unusual condition. I ran across one of these and had a chance to spend some time photographing it -- a young white-tailed deer with a genetic condition called piebald. Piebaldism is a rare genetic abnormality, which can express in a wide variety of deformities. The most common of these deformities is a white coat, or more specifically, patches of white on what would normally be a brown deer.
A severe case of piebaldism can also involve shortening of the legs and bowing of the legs. In addition, the hooves are often deformed, and the spine can be severely arched. Many of the most severe cases don’t survive very long after birth. Individuals who have a moderate condition can live several years. Those with just the white patches can live a full, long life, and even reproduce.
Less than two percent of the white-tailed deer population have the piebald condition. Piebaldism is caused by a set of recessive genes that is believed to come from both parents, or, at least, both parents need to carry the gene, even if it isn’t expressed (visible) in the parents. What is even more interesting, about 25 percent of white-tailed deer females that produce twins or even triplets, the young don’t have the same genetic father. This is why when twins are born, often only one shows the symptoms of piebaldism and the other doesn’t. Females with a mild form of piebaldism can reproduce normal fawns, if she mates with a male who doesn’t carry the gene.
By the way, the word piebald (pi-bold) is an adjective that describes a different set of colors, especially spotted or blotched with black and white color. The word originates from a combination of words. The first is “pie” from magpie and “bald” meaning white patch or spot. It refers to the black and white plumage of the magpie bird. Typically, the word is used to describe horses with irregular patches of two colors, typically black and white. This is also works for white-tailed deer, but of course, they are brown and white.
Some of these animals also exhibit issues with their eyes. Oftentimes, a piebald deer has light blue eyes. They also sometimes have pink noses and ears. Piebaldism shouldn’t be confused with albinism or leucism. Albinism is a total lack of pigment throughout the entire body of the animal. They have pink eyes, ears and any exposed skin, along with white fur. Leucism is a reduction of pigmentation by limiting the production of melanin and other pigments from being deposited in a bird’s feathers or an animal’s fur. The results are patches of white.
I’ve always been fascinated with the rule breakers in nature. You know, the critters who either look or act different, so it’s always fun to see and document these kinds of animals. Over the decades, I’ve had many opportunities to photograph and study pure white deer. In my experience and estimation, there are more pure white deer than piebald. Perhaps, it’s because in the severe cases of piebald, the animal doesn’t live long.
So the next time you are out and about, it’s fun to look for these kinds of differences in our wildlife. Until next time…
Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the world to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed on www.face book.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com.