Albino deer in the Marquette area

An albino deer is pictured at Presque Isle in Marquette. (Journal file photo)

If you live in the Marquette area, you might have seen one of the albino deer and wondered where it came from and what caused its white coloring. Albinism is a recessive trait found in many animals (and even plants), where they lack the genes for normal coloration and do not produce the enzyme responsible for skin, hair and tissue coloration. The result of this genetic oddity is the total absence of body pigment, although the eyes of an albino appear to be pink because blood vessels behind the lenses show through the unpigmented irises. Although it’s not rare for albino deer to be born in the wild they seldom live to maturity. The defective genes that cause albinism in can also cause other physical problems, leading to many albino fawns being shunned by their mothers. Additionally, the healthy fawns are more likely to fall prey to predators because they lack the camouflage of normal fawns.

In the case of the Marquette herd, the albino deer can all be traced back to a single buck. “Snow” was born in the wild in Delta County in 1981, where he could be seen daily feeding along U.S. 2. Due to public pressure, the DNR decided to move the deer for his protection. Residents who favored the move were concerned that a poacher might shoot it.

In April 1982 he was tranquilized by DNR veterinarian Dr. Steve Schmitt and transferred to deer enclosure at the Presque Isle Zoo in Marquette. At the time he was 10 months old and had an open wound and infection in his leg. Initially the Presque Isle herd rejected Snow, running away from him when he approached and even attacking him but by the following year he had successfully integrated with the herd.

Soon Snow became the dominant buck in the enclosure. He bred several does and fathered five white offspring but all died due to various complications. Then, during the 1988 fall rut, Snow broke his leg fighting one of the other bucks and had to be euthanized at the age of 7 ½. Despite the deaths of his white offspring, Snow must have sired some of the brown deer in the herd because his genetic heritage lived on.

Over the next several years a number of albino fawns were born in the enclosure on Presque Isle. Like Snow’s original offspring, several of these deer met untimely ends, including twin bucks who were born in 1992 and were poached in 1993 and 1994 (at the time it was illegal to hunt albino deer in Michigan). But even with the challenges faced by the individual deer, the genetic lineage has survived and when the enclosure at Presque Isle was removed in the spring of 1994 it spread further throughout Marquette County.

With Snow’s hidden genetic lineage, several does that are normally colored have been producing albino offspring. In 2016 one of the does had twins, one of which is an albino and the other has normal coloring. According to reports, there are currently around a half dozen albino deer in Marquette and that number is slowly growing.

But deer are not the only local creatures found with the albino genetic mutation. Around the turn of the last century, famed local wildlife photographer George Shiras III discovered an albino porcupine on Whitefish Lake in Alger County. Shiras took several pictures of the animal and noted: “What had heretofore been a strong suspicion in regard to her blindness was now apparently settled. I repeatedly placed the blade of a brightly colored maple canoe paddle in front of her and each time she came into collision with it.

“By the way she sized the paddle and investigated it with teeth, nose and feet, it was apparent that this obstacle was a great mystery to her. Feeling sure that she was also deaf, we all cried out in unison, but she showed not the slightest heed. Finally, we pushed around to the windward. The porcupine showed instant alarm when the scent reached her and went ashore…

In the course of the seven years that this animal was under frequent observation, it never, when alone, departed from the trail along the shore or returned by other than the well-worn path to its cave. Often we were on the lake awaiting its appearance, and invariably it came down to the bank at the same spot, usually between the hours of 7 and 8.”