BEIJING (UPI) — Chinese researchers say they’ve solved the genetic puzzle of what creates white tigers, seen today only in zoos.
Scientists at Peking University, writing in the journal Current Biology, say the creatures’ spectacular white coats are produced by a single change in a known pigment gene.
“The white tiger represents part of the natural genetic diversity of the tiger that is worth conserving, but is now seen only in captivity,” researcher Shu-Jin Luo said.
The researchers mapped the genomes of a family of 16 tigers living in China’s Chimelong Safari Park, including both white and orange animals.
The genetic variant found in the white tiger primarily inhibits the synthesis of red and yellow pigments but has little to no effect on black, which explains why white tigers still show characteristic dark stripes, they said.
While historical records of white tigers on the Indian subcontinent date back to the 1500s, the last known free-ranging white tiger was shot in 1958.
Luo advocates a proper captive management program to maintain a healthy Bengal tiger population including both white and orange tigers and adds it might be worth considering the reintroduction of white tigers into their wild habitat.