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With fewer than 2,000 giant pandas left in the wild, the sighting of one of the cuddly animals is a cause for celebration. However, the one recently spotted trampling through a bamboo forest in China's Sichuan Province is even more so given that it is the world's first known albino panda!
The all-white cub with reddish eyes was captured by an infrared motion-triggered camera set up to monitor the wildlife in the Wolong National Nature Reserve, a vast protected area which is also home to China's first giant panda breeding and research center. Wolong officials, who announced the discovery of the ghost-like panda bear on May 25, 2019, stated that the impromptu photo shoot occurred in a densely-forested area about 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) above sea level. They estimate the mammal, whose gender is hard to determine from the grainy photo, is between one and two years old.
Albinism, a genetic condition characterized by a reduced amount, or complete lack, of pigmentation in the skin, eyes, and hair, often makes it difficult for animals to hide from predators. A 2017 study by University of California, Davis researchers discovered that the giant panda's distinct black and white coloring allows it to blend in with the snow during winter or to hide in the shade during the summer. The scientists also believe the dark circles around the eyes help the panda bears recognize each other. Fortunately, the lack of markings does not seem to have affected the albino panda cub thus far. Li Sheng, an assistant professor in conservation biology at Peking University who specializes in bears, told China Central Television (CCTV), "The panda looked strong, and his steps were steady, a sign that the genetic mutation may not have quite impeded its life."
The researchers, who plan to add more cameras in the area where the giant panda was seen to capture additional photos and track the bear's development, say while albino animals are rare in general, all-white pandas are even more so. That's because the albinism mutation is recessive, meaning it can only be inherited if both parents carry the gene. With so few specimens of panda bears left in the world, the odds of that happening are almost next to impossible.
This is not the first time a panda bear sporting an uncommon color has been discovered. The Qinling mountain range in China's southern Shaanxi province is home to a handful of all-brown pandas, also believed to be the result of a recessive gene mutation. Among them is Qi Zai, an adorable nine-year-old brown bear who was found abandoned in the wild when he was just two months old. After being nursed back to health at the Shaanxi Rare Wildlife Rescue Center, Qi Zai was brought to the Foping Panda National Nature Reserve where he resided for three years. Since November 2017, the giant panda has been living at the Shaanxi Giant Panda Breeding Center and mingling with potential mates. Scientists hope that an offspring, or two, will add to the dwindling panda bear population and provide them insights into Qi Zai's unique coloring.