It's a kingfisher! No, it's a barbet! Wait, is it a new species altogether?
Among the morphological features that aid in identifying a species, colours play a vital role. The Golden-throated Barbet, for example, has a distinct yellow-orange throat patch, and as the name suggests, Malabar Grey Hornbills are brown-grey in colour. We all know that this identification goes beyond birds. Malabar Pit Vipers are found in various colour morphs like green, brown, orange, yellow and chocolate brown, enabling them to hide in plain sight.
But, photographer Sounak Dutta faced a unique conundrum about three years ago in the Sunderbans National Park, West Bengal. He encountered a bird morphologically similar to the kingfisher but in all-white plumage. On close observation, he realised that it could be a Collared or a Black-capped Kingfisher that had lost its hues to leucism.
In fundamental terms, leucism is the partial loss of pigmentation which leads to white patches or white colouration instead of the animal's natural colours. Not to be confused with albinism, in which case the affected animals completely lose their pigmentation. Albinos appear white or sometimes even pink in colour. A great way to distinguish between the two is by looking at the eye colour. In leucism, animals do not lose the pigmentation of their eyes, whereas in albinism, their eyes also appear pale. The eyes of an albino are usually pink because the underlying blood vessels are now visible.
Leucism has been observed across species like birds, reptiles, mammals and amphibians. The condition is caused by a genetic mutation that leads to the absence of cells responsible for melanin production. Every time photographers encounter a leucistic animal, word spreads quickly and more people throng the location hoping to document the species. But for the species itself, leucism is not a favourable attribute. This means that they lose their ability to camouflage, becoming easy targets for the predators. Also, among several species, males depend on bright colours to attract a potential mate. And most importantly, for animals that rely on sunlight to optimise their body temperatures (like crocodiles or reptiles), leucism can be a hindrance as the white colour reflects more light.
In this story, we bring you images of leucistic animals that our community of photographers have captured from across the country. From a cobra to a dove to an antelope—the list shows how prevalent the condition is across species.