Albino salamander


Having no skin pigment at all makes you stand out from the crowd, but can also lead to stigmatisation

An inherited inability to make melanin leads to albinism, a condition in which an individual’s skin, eyes and hair are very pale. It is generally a recessive condition. Variation in several genes can compromise melanin production, including the gene OCA2. Albinism is also a feature of some rare syndromes (such as Hermansky–Pudlak syndrome) that have a much wider range of symptoms.

People with albinism often have eye problems and are at a high risk of contracting skin cancer in hot countries. They also often suffer social stigmatism. The condition has often been associated with antisocial tendencies in film and literature – in 2006 the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH) identified 68 films made between 1960 and 2006 that featured an ‘evil albino’ character.

Silas in Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’ (2003) (played by Paul Bettany in the 2006 film version) is a religious fanatic and an assassin who murders several people. Although criticised for this portrayal, Brown has argued that Silas’s behaviour is a result of his treatment by others rather than his skin colour itself, and illustrates “how cruelly societies can ostracize those of us who look different”.

More recently, in 2013 the comedy film ‘The Heat’ was criticised by albino groups for reinforcing negative stereotypes by portraying an albino character as a “misogynistic jerk”.

Positive albino role models comprise several musicians including Yellowman from Jamaica and Salif Keita from Mali, as well as South African model Diandra Forrest. (In African cultures albinism is linked to witchcraft, meaning albino people face discrimination – people with the condition have been murdered because of the way they look.)

Albinism is also found in animal species, including laboratory species such as the African clawed frog. A sensitive portrayal of an albino animal is seen in ‘Sophie and the Albino Camel’ and other related books by Stephen Davies. The hero of these books is a cheerful and generous albino camel called Chobbal, who is looked after by a young African boy after being rejected by his mother.

Possibly the most notable albino animal was the sperm whale Mocha Dick, immortalised by Herman Melville as ‘Moby-Dick’. From 1810 until 1859 the white whale survived some 100 battles with whalers off the coasts of South America, inflicting terrible damage to ships that challenged him (though appearing docile and companionable when left alone).

Lead image:

An albino axolotl in a tank. Axolotls are salamanders and undergo only partial metamorphosis, remaining permanently in the embryonic stage. They retain their gills and live entirely underwater. They also have the ability to regrow their limbs if necessary.

Wellcome Photo Library, Wellcome Images CC BY NC ND


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘How We Look’ in June 2008 and reviewed and updated in November 2014.

Ecology and environment, Cell biology, Genetics and genomics, History
How We Look
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development