Science

First known wild chimpanzee with albinism was killed by other chimps

The body of the infant with albinism was inspected by other infants. Please scroll down to see the original image, which some readers may find upsetting.

Maël Leroux

For the first time, a wild chimpanzee with albinism has been spotted. The baby ape was born with bright white fur and a total lack of pigmentation. It was an unprecedented opportunity to see how the other chimpanzees treated it.

“We could actually document the behaviour of chimpanzees towards this individual,” says Maël Leroux of the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

Unfortunately, the male baby chimp was born into a community noted for high rates of infanticide, and was killed by adults while just weeks old. “If it had happened in a different chimp community, there might have been a fantastic opportunity to observe this individual growing up,” says Adriana Lowe, previously at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK, who wasn’t involved in the study.

Leroux and his colleagues were tracking the Sonso chimpanzee community in Budongo Forest Reserve, Uganda. In 2018, a female dubbed UP became pregnant. On 15 July that year, she was spotted carrying a white infant.

Several adult chimpanzees approached UP and the baby. They made alarm calls and so-called waa barks, which are used when they meet dangerous animals like snakes. One adult male charged at UP and hit her. She soon disappeared into dense undergrowth with the baby.

Early in the morning of 19 July, Leroux and a colleague found a group of chimps hidden in a thicket and making angry and alarmed calls. They heard what sounded like a fight and an infant screaming. The baby chimp died after attacks by the group’s alpha male, HW.

After the chimps abandoned the body, the researchers autopsied it and confirmed a lack of pigment in the skin and hair, along with pink eyeballs – a clear sign of albinism. Leroux says there is no reason to think the infant was killed because of its appearance, because the Sonso community is so prone to infanticide. UP’s previous baby was also killed.

Chimpanzee infanticides are probably mostly a male reproductive strategy, says Lowe, who has studied infanticide in Sonso. “Males are killing infants they are unlikely to be related to, in order to bring the mothers back into their [menstrual] cycle so they have a chance to father an infant with them.”

New Scientist Default Image

Maël Leroux

However, Leroux says the other chimps’ behaviour towards the infant – in particular the alarm calls – is unusual. “They seemed to be more alert and, I wouldn’t say afraid, but alert and alarmed,” he says.

After the baby’s death, many of the chimps carefully investigated the body in apparent puzzlement. Several sniffed its anus, or even inserted a finger and then smelled it – which Leroux says is “super rare”. “I would say they saw it as a chimp infant, but something was wrong about it,” he says.

In general, chimpanzees don’t victimise individuals with disabilities or visible differences, says Lowe. Several animals in the area are missing hands or limbs after being caught in snares set by local people to catch bushmeat. Males with disabilities may be stuck in low-ranking positions, and thus beaten up, but no more than other low-ranked males, she says.

The only other known chimpanzee with albinism was called Pinkie. She lived for years at the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Sierra Leone, where the other chimps accepted her, until her death in 2002.

Journal reference: American Journal of Primatology, DOI: 10.1002/ajp.23305

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