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.

 Leucistic kingfisher from Sunderbans
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Possibly a Collared or a Black-capped Kingfisher | Sunderbans National Park, West Bengal | Photograph: Sounak Dutta

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.

Albino Indian Cobra Naja Naja
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Albinism is a condition where the affected animal completely loses their pigmentation. Whereas leucism is a partial loss in pigmentation, leading to white patches and colouration. An albino Indian Cobra (Naja naja) from Baramati, Maharashtra. Photograph: Girish Choure

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.

Leucistic Blackbuck Antelope
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Blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) | Kanjari Deer Park, Gujarat | Photograph: Jay Patel

Leucistic Indian Cobra Naja naja
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Indian Cobra (Naja naja) | Nashik, Maharashtra | Photograph: Girish Choure

Leucistic Common Kingfisher
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Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) | Udaipur, Rajasthan | Photograph: Akshita Saxena, Bhanu Pratap Singh Rathore, Vidhan Dwivedi

Leucistic Blue faced Malkoha
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Blue-faced Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus viridirostris) | Kannur, Kerala | Photograph: Fahaz AK

Leucistic Laughing Dove
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Laughing Dove (Spilopelia senegalensis) | Vadodara, Gujarat | Photograph: Ninad Vaidya

Leucistic Spotted Deer Chital
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Spotted Deer (Axis axis) | Nagarahole National Park, Karnataka | Photograph: Dr Jishnu Raveendran

Leucistic Plain Prinia
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Plain Prinia (Prinia inornata) | Chennai, Tamil Nadu | Photograph: Ananth Ramasamy

Leucistic Coppersmith Barbet
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Coppersmith Barbet (Psilopogon haemacephalus) | Mumbai, Maharashtra | Photograph: Karan Solanki

Leucistic Bulbul
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A leucistic bulbul, ID unknown | Nalsarovar Bird Sanctuary, Gujarat | Photograph: Saswat Mishra

Leucistic Little Ringed Plover
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Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius) | Shenduruni Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala | Photograph: Dr Jishnu Raveendran

Leucistic Crested Lark
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Crested Lark (Galerida cristata) | Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat | Photograph: Sushmitha Reddy

Leucistic Black Drongo
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Black Drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus) | Saswad, Maharashtra | Photograph: Shantanu Ambulgekar

Leucistic Long-tailed Shrike
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Long-tailed Shrike (Lanius schach) | Anshi, Karnataka | Photograph: Gururaj Gouda

Leucistic Baya Weaver
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Baya Weaver (Ploceus philippinus) | Pune, Maharashtra | Photograph: Sushant Jadhav