Kate Mabry / Houma Courier
Did you know that a pair of unique reptiles on display at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans were pulled from a Terrebonne swamp?
Spots and Antoine Blanc are two of more than a dozen white alligators discovered in 1987 on land outside of Houma owned by the Louisiana Land & Exploration Co.
“The Cajun fisherman who initially found the nest only recovered eight or nine white hatchlings, which he distributed to various friends including a friend in St. Louis and the zoo,” said Rick Atkinson, the longtime curator of the Louisiana Swamp Exhibit and witnessed the alligators' arrival.
“LL&E employees later recovered the remaining hatchlings in the wild, totaling 19. The St. Louis animal died, and all the others were recovered,” he said.
Ten of those alligators, estimated to be worth between $50,000 and $70,000 each, remain alive today. Each is about 10 feet long and weighs several hundred pounds.
In addition to the Audubon Zoo gators, there's Spots, also known as Japan, at the Audubon Aquarium in New Orleans; four at the Gatorland theme park and wildlife preserve in Orlando, Florida, and one each at zoos in Houston, Omaha, Nebraska, and Palm Beach, Florida.
Why are they white?
While some assume the white alligators suffer from albinism, Atkinson said, they are actually leucistic. The rare genetic condition reduces the color pigmentation of their skin.
“Leucistic alligators have been described as having one enormous white spot covering the body with blue-gray eyes,” he said. “It looks like they're painted white. Most of them have a few random black blotches somewhere.”
Albino alligators, on the other hand, look translucent and have pink eyes. They lack pigmentation.
The critters are American alligators, which can be found throughout Florida and in parts of Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Georgia. The population numbers about 5 million, but only 12 leucistic gators are known to exist.
The average American alligator lives for 70 or more years. But the lifespan of a leucistic one remains unknown. The Terrebonne gators will turn 27 in August.
As with all white animals, they are vulnerable to the sun and predators. Each is kept in a controlled environment.
He's named what?
Atkinson said some of the alligators were named after archbishops from Louisiana — Blanc and Shulte were named for archbishops Antoine Blanc and Francis Shulte. There's also Mr. Bingle, named after the Christmas-time mascot of the now defunct New Orleans-based Maison Blanche department store.
The gators have been known to travel, which is how Spots got his second nickname, Japan, following a stay in that country. Atkinson said many of the gators have been displayed at exhibits throughout the country and world.
In 1994, another leucistic alligator was found. That gator, named after Archbishop St. John Baptist LaSalle, was found about six miles south of Venice. He belonged to the state and died while touring the country in a promotional fur and hide show.
Two other white alligators were discovered about five years ago at the Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge, Atkinson said.
Chompitoulas and Canaligator — a nod to the New Orleans streets Tchoupitoulas and Canal — are, respectively, at a zoo outside Louisiana and the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center outside of New Orleans.
Atkinson said this latest discovery proves wild alligators are continuing to produce offspring with the leucistic gene.
“It's not common, but it's obvious that there is more than one pair of alligators (carrying this gene),” he said.
Although the leucistic alligators have intrigued animal lovers from across the world, Atkinson said, their preservation is not considered a high priority.
“In actuality, there isn't anything of great scientific interest about leucistic alligators; the genetics are pretty well known,” he said. “They're not an endangered species; they are a genetic anomaly of the American alligator. They're just impressive to see.”
However, Atkinson said the appearance of leucistic alligators appears to be a recent phenomenon, as no previous documentation has been uncovered.
“There are no old tales or history of white alligators,” he said. “Some wonder, 'Is this a result of pollution or climate change or something else?' And the answer is that we don't have any idea.”