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Odds on Deer Oddities

Ideal conditions in Minnesota state park allow albino herd to flourish

By: Mike Suchan

Guess I should have been taking better notes when my college biology professor went over genetics, especially after Tim Roeschlein posed this question:

According to www.backwoodswisconsin.com, the odds of seeing three albino deer at the same time is 1 in 79 billion.

I took this photo of four albino deer at the Father Hennepen State Park in Isle, Minn. Any idea what the odds of my photo are?

For several years, Tim and wife Karrie have had twin albino deer, a doe and buck, coming to feed at their back porch in Wahkon, Minn. Tim says he's now seen at least seven albino deer in the area.

Others, like Linda Arent, have also seen and photographed the "white ghosts" in the area. Linda was so kind to send along her photos of the albino deer at Father Hennepin State Park.

Google albino plus the park and you get a herd of results. Apparently the park has breeding albinos.

Back to Tim's question. What are the odds?

Frankly Tim, I have no idea. If the odds on three are 79 billion, divide that by three and carry the aught, 105 billion to 1? Ok, maybe I should have listened to my statistics instructor as well.

Enter George Mayfield, long-time deer lodge operator who has a graduate degree in wildlife biology from Louisiana State University. He was asked about the albino herd, "What up with that?"

"It's a freak of nature." Mayfield said. "It's a matter of probability and genetics. It's really part of the evolutionary process. And double recessive genes express themselves in different ways."

Albinism, a congenital disorder brought on by recessive genes, affects pigment, or lack thereof, in eyes, skin and hair. It is rare, said to be found in 1 in 100,000 deer births. Both parents must have the recessive gene, and even then there is only a 1 in 4 chance offspring will be albino. Two albino deer, however, will produce albino fawns.

Mayfield, 56, said it's not that simple to put a number on something like Tim's photo, because there are just too many variables. Take the Seneca Army Depot's white deer in upstate New York. While not true albinos, a herd of 300 white deer live in a fenced-in area of a former Cold War compound.

The Hennepin albinos could be similarly confined to an area where they can thrive and procreate. They are surrounded by a lake to the north and human development to the south, and there's no hunting in Minnesota state parks.

From the photos, it appears there's thick growth where they can take cover in the summer and snow to hide in during the winter, so the odds must be higher for the albinos to survive coyotes and other predators.

Down on Mayfield's deer property, a 12,000-acre spread on the Mississippi-Alabama border, there has most likely been an albino born at some time. Each of the 77 hunting days over the past 30 years, Mayfield sent out 28 hunters for eight hours — four in the morning and four in the afternoon.

"And they never saw one or reported one," he said of albino deer. "I never missed a day and I never saw one.

"I've never had an albino on my place. The problem with them in the area where I was hunting, when they crossed the property, they were killed as a novelty. They're usually taken out of the population pretty quick."

Sure, and their lack of camouflage and poor vision that accompanies albinism probably made any that were born there easy prey. With deer density of 25 to 35 deer per square mile, Mayfield has obviously come across a load or 12 of deer, and he's seen some oddities, especially piebalds, which are spotted with white.

"We have a fairly regular occurrence of piebald," he said. "Over 30 something years, we've had about 10 encounters with piebalds."

The rarest pigmentation in deer, Mayfield said, is melanistic, the opposite of albinism. Their excessive coloration makes these deer appear all black. There is an area in central Texas that has more than its share of black deer, and Mayfield surmised it has to do with habitat conducive to a black deer surviving.

"An increase in melanin in the pigment, I've never seen that here," said Mayfield, adding there's that bell-shape distribution curve to deer anomalies. "To do anything statistically on that, you have to have a lot of data."

Ok, that takes us back to Tim's original question: the odds on having four albino deer in one photo.

"I'm out my league. If you want to kill something, that's what I do," he said. "I could make up one, but I don't think that's what you are looking for."

Mayfield suggested calling a university and talking to a professor of genetics, but I'm not known for listening to them either. 

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