Deer that aren’t brown often get a lot of attention. There are several conditions that can produce non-brown coloration in deer:
Albinism is the result of reduction of melanin production only. It is inherited through recessive gene alleles. Melanin helps to protect the skin and eyes from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. This leaves these animals very sensitive to overexposure to sunlight increasing their risk of melanomas and retinal damage. As a result, they usually die at an early age.
Leucism is a condition characterized by reduced pigmentation also caused by recessive alleles. However, it is caused by a reduction in all types of skin pigment, not just melanin.
Piebald is partial leucism resulting in irregular patches of white on an animal that otherwise has normal color and patterning.
Melanism is the result of excessive production of melanin resulting in darkening of skin, fur or feathers. It is rarer than albinism.
Both albino and leucistic animals have white hair and pink skin; however, eye color is the key. Due to the lack of melanin in the retinal pigmented epithelium and the iris, albinos usually have red eyes due to the underlying blood vessels showing through. Leucistic animals have normal or blue colored eyes.
Most of the reports we receive about “albino” deer are actually piebald. With the millions of genetic combinations that occur when deer breed, piebald deer are rare but widely documented throughout the range of the whitetail. Usually, they are reported at rates under 1% in the population. Limited observations indicate normal and piebald deer cross produce both normal and piebald offspring. This rate can increase if piebald deer are protected, making the genes for this condition more common in the population.
Pinto Deer, an article from Myths & Legends of the Whitetail, discusses this as well.
By: J.T. Fleegle,
Game Commission Wildlife Biologist, Deer & Elk Management Section
Photo: Sherry Sparks