Something wonderful happened at Abelana over the festive season, resulting in a rare and beautiful addition to the reserve’s wildlife family – a black impala lamb was born!
The lamb was spotted just a few hours after birth by Abelana River Lodge guide Bill Drew on a morning drive. He quickly captured the sighting on his camera, understanding how special such an anomaly is in the wild.
The baby’s black colouration is caused by melanism, a genetic mutation that causes an overproduction of melanin, the natural pigments that determine skin and hair colour. While some game farms actively breed for melanistic animals, it is very rare to find a black variation in the wild, so our new baby is very special indeed.
Melanism and its opposite – leucism, in which mutated genes cause too little melanin to be produced resulting in pale or white skin and fur colouration and occasional blue or pale-coloured eyes. These colour mutations do not affect the animal’s longevity or physiology, but in the case of predators with leucism can hamper the ability to effectively blend in to their surroundings while hunting.
A third colour variation that sometimes occurs in the wild is albinism. This genetic mutation results in a complete absence of melanin and is characterised by uniformly white animals with pink or red eyes because of no pigmentation whatsoever in the eye cells. True albinos are fare more rare than leucistic variations and are easily told apart by this eye colour difference.
Notable examples of melanism in the wild include sightings of black leopards (also known as black panthers), the most recent of which was spotted in the northern Kenyan region of Laikipia. Melanistic tree squirrels have also been reported in nearby Hoedspruit. When it comes to leucism, the most renowned cases of this have been found in the Timbavati in lion populations there, giving rise to the famed “white lions” of this area.
Another colouration anomally in the African bush is the mutation that gives rise to what’s known as the “king cheetah” which has distinctive strips along its back from its neck to its tail instead of spots. This colouration is caused by a recessive gene that’s also carried in domestic cats, giving rise to tabby colouring variations.
In the case of the king cheetah variation, scientists in the 1930s mistakenly thought it to be a new, separate species. It’s important to note that no animal affected by any of these colour mutations is a different or sub species but just a naturally occuring quirk that occasionally pops up in nature.
Birds can also be affected by melanism and leucism, but some species – most notably among the raptor family – are also affected by what is known as colour polymorphism, which produces a range of colour variations within the species. Take, for example, the tawny eagle. This beautiful eagle is characterised by its “morphs” – the different colorations and feather patterns that distinguish it. These variations include a pale, rufus (red), medium and dark morph in both juvenile and adult birds! Talk about multicoloured!