Imagine the stark desolation of Antarctica's Cape Crozier, a place off-limits to sightseers and scientists to protect one of the earth’s largest Adélie penguin colonies, with some estimates suggesting 600,000 of these flightless, 10-pound birds occupying this area. Then imagine being a part of a National Geographic tour and seeing a penguin like no other. That's precisely what happened. Photographer Jeff Mauritzen stumbled upon a rare, blonde Adélie penguin during a tourist expedition earlier this winter. The blonde penguin was unlike any other penguin he had ever seen.
Leucism is a genetic mutation that affects the quantity of pigment in the feathers of birds with lighter coloration. As a result, certain body parts of animals with leucism are denied pigment distribution, leading to pale brown or blonde coloration. The result is a creature with a unique and seldom-seen appearance. And that is precisely what the photographer captured. Unlike albinism, which results in a lack of melanin production, leucism does not affect pigment production quantity. The mutation instead prevents pigment distribution to certain body parts. As a result, leucistic birds may appear washed-out, as if bleached or have spotted feathers. And in some cases, leucistic creatures are often misidentified as other species.
P. Dee Boersma, a penguin expert at the University of Washington in Seattle, confirmed it was an isabelline, or leucistic, penguin. Though rare, Adélie penguins are one of the most common species affected by the condition. Other species affected include chinstrap, rockhopper, and macaroni penguins. A study conducted in 2000 found that leucism occurred most often in the gentoo species, with one in every 20,000 penguins, followed by Adélie at one in every 114,000 animals showing leucistic traits. Chinstrap penguins were third, with one in every 146,000 birds. Penguins with leucism live relatively ordinary lives, and their peers do not reject them or predators do not target them at higher rates. For scientists, this sighting was not only a rare encounter, but a reminder of the beauty and diversity present in nature. More so, it underscores the need to protect these cute, flightless birds, especially since they are often susceptible to environmental changes.
Jeff Mauritzen, the photographer, says he has witnessed millions of penguins in his career as a photographer, but only two of them were leucistic penguins. According to him, "Nature is just continuously surprising us." Although sighting the blonde penguin was a rare moment for Mauritzen, it was an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the diversity that exists in nature.