• Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Just how rare was the albino moose that hunters shot in Cape Breton, N.S., in October?

Rare enough that Vince Crichton, a former Manitoba Conservation manager whose enthusiasm for the species led to him being dubbed “Dr. Moose,” has never seen one, despite growing up near Foleyet, Ont., a small community that he says is a hotbed for albino moose sightings.

While some have spotted albino moose (Crichton says he has records of sightings being reported from Newfoundland to Alaska, and a handful of anecdotes about hunters shooting the animal), the truth is that spotting any albino animal is uncommon.

Outside of certain species — such as Siamese cats, which are nearly all born with genes related to albinism — the genetic condition tends to be rare in the animal kingdom. Murray Brilliant, the director of the Center for Human Genetics at the University of Wisconsin and an expert on albinism, says that while albinism can occur in just about every kind of animal, the absence of pigmentation varies greatly among individuals in any species.

Brilliant says there are certain incidences where the lack of pigmentation becomes more common when an isolated population arises from a limited number of individuals, such as the Kermode, or “spirit,” bears in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest. It’s believed only around 500 of these white bears — which are actually a subspecies of black bear — are left in British Columbia, although they are not albinos (their white fur comes from a recessive gene that’s passed on from both parents).

The  Cape Breton Highlands, where hunters shot the albino moose in October, are similarly isolated. Clifford Paul, the moose management co-ordinator of the Unamaki Institute of Natural Resources, which represents Mi’kmaq environmental concerns in Cape Breton, says that in the last six years there have been sightings of at least three distinct white moose. After one was shot and another died of natural causes, only one lone female is thought to remain. Paul says it was recently sighted being pursued by a non-albino bull. The prospect of a potential tryst in the making has Paul excited about what could result. “If the bull carries that [albinism] gene,” he says, “then they could successfully reproduce [an albino moose].”