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.

     Sounak Dutta                  | Nature Infocus
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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.

     Girish Albino Naja Naja Juvenile   | Nature Infocus
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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.

     Jay Patel                      x     | Nature Infocus
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Blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) | Kanjari Deer Park, Gujarat | Photograph: Jay Patel
     Girish Choure                      x     | Nature Infocus
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Indian Cobra (Naja naja) | Nashik, Maharashtra | Photograph: Girish Choure
     PSX                 | Nature Infocus
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Laughing Dove (Spilopelia senegalensis) | Vadodara, Gujarat | Photograph: Ninad Vaidya
     Ananth Ramasamy IMG      | Nature Infocus
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Plain Prinia (Prinia inornata) | Chennai, Tamil Nadu | Photograph: Ananth Ramasamy


     Saswat Leucism | Nature Infocus
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A leucistic bulbul, ID unknown | Nalsarovar Bird Sanctuary, Gujarat | Photograph: Saswat Mishra
     Sushmitha Reddy                  | Nature Infocus
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Crested Lark (Galerida cristata) | Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat | Photograph: Sushmitha Reddy
     Sushant Jadhav                      x     | Nature Infocus
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Baya Weaver (Ploceus philippinus) | Pune, Maharashtra | Photograph: Sushant Jadhav