Have you ever seen a blonde raccoon? How about a black squirrel? Did you know that both of these colorations are caused by a mutated gene? It all has to do with melanin. Melanin is what causes color in mammals. Whether it’s eye color, hair color, or skin color, melanin is responsible for it all. Darker colors means that there is more melanin, while lighter colors means there is less melanin.

For those individuals with low levels of melanin, they will appear all-over fair in color. This is what leads to blonde raccoons. When you take this low level of melanin one step farther, and remove the melanin completely, this is what is known as albinism. Albino mammals are those mammals that are all white in color, with pink or red eyes. It is caused by a complete lack of melanin, and is incredibly rare. It requires exactly the right combination of recessive genes, as even one non-albino gene will still cause some melanin to appear, such as the case with blonde raccoons. Full-albino animals often do not survive long in the wild, for a combination of reasons. One of these reasons is that with the lack of melanin, these animals are unable to properly camouflage and hide from predators. Additionally, most albino animals, due to the lack of melanin in the cones in their eyes, have very poor eyesight, which makes survival even more difficult. A similar condition, leucism, can also cause all-white or partially-white animals, but these animals will often still retain some part of their normal color, and it affects multiple pigment types, not just melanin.

On the opposite side of the spectrum are black squirrels. Black squirrels are a result of the overproduction of melanin, a condition known as melanism. This is when there is so much pigment present that it overpowers the natural color and creates an all black or mostly black appearance. For example some black squirrels may appear only partially black, with brown patches mixed in. Melanism, like albinism, is also a genetic condition, and is common in squirrels across the Midwest. Another example, this condition is also found frequently in leopards and jaguars, resulting in black panthers. These black cats were once thought to be a completely separate species, but it was eventually discovered that they are simply these same leopards and jaguars, but with the melanistic genes.

So when you come across a blonde raccoon, or a black squirrel, now you know why these animals aren’t the colors you are used to. Additionally, are technicians are more than happy to come remove these animals from your property and relocate them – it makes for a great photo opportunity!