An albino anteater was recently found in Mato Grosso do Sul. With light fur and reddish eyes, he was baptized with the name of Alvin.
According to experts, it is the only albino giant anteater known on the planet and its existence may help explain how the cerrado deforestation affects the species.
The discovery took place in August of this year and is mobilizing researchers from the Institute for the Conservation of Wild Animals (ICAS), which began a scientific study on the animal and its adaptation to the cerrado.
With only eight months to live, he was found by employees of a private farm in the region of Três Lagoas, a city about 330 km from the capital, Campo Grande. As a puppy, he was with his mother, who carried him on her back – the female usually takes care of the puppy for up to 10 months.
Its mother, however, had characteristics common to the giant anteater: grayish fur that serves to camouflage the animal amidst the vegetation of the cerrado.
The giant anteater, a mammal considered one of the symbols of the biome’s rich fauna, is at risk of extinction due to hunting and also the constant destruction of the vegetation that serves as its habitat.
It is estimated that, in the last 10 years, the species has lost 30% of the population, which is present throughout the Brazilian cerrado, but also in other areas in South America.
In this context of risk, Alvin occupies an even rarer position: there is no news that there are other albinos like him.
Albinism is a genetic disorder that limits the production of melanin, generating animals with light or tawny coats.
Albinism can affect all species, but it is extremely rare — and, given the size of the fauna in an extensive biome like the Cerrado, finding an albino animal depends a lot on luck.
In this scenario, Alvin’s existence is shrouded in some mysteries that scientists will try to unravel in the coming months.
The first is that it was not the first albino anteater to appear in the Três Lagoas region.
A year earlier, in August 2021, another individual with a tan coat like him was found by employees of the same farm.
“When we got there, he was already dead, but we managed to collect genetic samples that were sent for laboratory analysis”, explains veterinarian Débora Yogui.
According to biologist Nina Attias, a researcher at ICAS, it is likely that this first albino anteater is the brother of Alvin, who was born months later.
To prove this thesis, genetic tests will be necessary with material collected from the two animals.
“Two albino anteaters appearing on the same farm is like two lightning strikes in the same place. That’s why we believe they are brothers”, explains Attias.
For Attias, however, there is a problem with this family configuration: anteaters are not monogamous, that is, they mate and produce offspring with several partners throughout their lives.
“For an albino to be born, a combination of the father’s and mother’s genes is necessary. It is a matter of chance, very difficult to happen”, explains the biologist.
So for the two to be siblings and albinos, it’s more likely that they are children of the same parents. “It would have to be a very big coincidence for two albino anteaters to be born from different parents on the same farm”, explains Attias.
At this point another important factor enters that can explain the phenomenon: the logging from the cerrado.
According to the biologist, the destruction of the biome could lead to the “inbreeding” of the species. That is, with fewer partner options for mating, the anteaters would have reached a lower degree of genetic diversity, increasing the chance of two albino individuals being born in the same region in a short period of time.
“Most likely this population decline and isolation of these animals have to do with the high degree of degradation of the cerrado in Mato Grosso do Sul”, he says.
A recent scientific study pointed out that, in Mato Grosso do Sul, there are only 16% of the original cerrado vegetation. The remainder was destroyed, mainly to make way for agriculture and livestock.
To be logging occurs in a large part of the biome, considered the most biodiverse savannah on the planet, with more than 14,000 plants, in addition to a rich wild fauna.
Data from the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) point out that the cerrado lost 10,689 square kilometers of vegetation between August 2021 and July of this year —proportionally, it suffers more from deforestation than the amazon.
According to MapBiomas, a platform that monitors land use in Brazil, 45.4% of the cerrado has already been destroyed to make way for agriculture, mainly for the cultivation of soy and corn.
How an albino survives
The Alvin anteater study may also uncover another mystery: how does an albino animal manage to survive in the cerrado?
Scientists put a monitoring collar on Alvin. All your movements are being recorded.
“The ecological theory says that albino animals have more difficulties adapting and surviving. They suffer more from the heat because of their fur, and it is also more difficult for them to camouflage themselves in the vegetation. There is practically no data on the challenges that albinos face. face to survive”, explains Attias.
For Alvin, perhaps it is more difficult to escape from large predators, such as jaguars and jaguars. This predation is even important for life in the cerrado: these large carnivores depend on the existence of the giant anteater for food.
Others serve as food for the anteater: each animal eats around 10,000 ants a day, in addition to thousands of termites.
In addition to being rare, Alvin’s life will not be easy at all.