‘Incredibly rare’ leucistic alligator hatchling cracks into Gatorland

Gatorland’s Danielle Lucas holds history in her hands. It’s in the form of a tiny reptile, weighing less than 3.5 ounces, that hatched at the attraction in August.

The American alligator’s debut was nose-first and newsworthy. Cracking through the shell was a bright white snout, indicating the eminent birth of an extremely rare leucistic alligator. Lucas, animal-care director at Gatorland, saw it happen.

“I felt like I was dreaming. It was surreal,” she said.

The odds of this occurring are “one in a gazillion,” said Mark McHugh, president and CEO of Gatorland.

“This is probably the biggest event that has happened in not just the alligator world but the reptile world, to produce a leucistic alligator. It’s just unheard of,” he said.

Leucistic alligators have bright white skin, created by a genetic condition, surrounding deep blue eyes. They have signs of pigmentation, mostly splotches of dark coloration around the head. Leucistics are more rare than albino gators, which have no pigmentation and pink eyes.

The recent birth at Gatorland was years in the making. A set of 18 leucistic alligators – all brothers – were rescued in a swamp in Louisiana in the 1980s and taken in by Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. Seven remain alive today, and three of them have been living at Gatorland since 2008.

“There has never been a white offspring from that group of 18 brothers that were born in 1987. This is the very first one. So it is incredibly rare,” McHugh said.

Gatorland’s bright white addition is female; she shares a birthday with a brother hatchling that is dark-colored. Their father is Jeyan (pronounced “jay-WAN”), and the mother is Ashley, who has dark skin and also moved to Gatorland with the leucistic brothers.

“They were really small, so it took us a number of years to raise them up, get them up to sexual maturity,” McHugh said. Then it took a few more years “before they really got with the program and produced viable eggs,” he said.

But Gatorland kept Jeyan and Ashley in sight.

“When it’s breeding season, we watch all the copulation and stuff like that, whether it takes or not,” Lucas said. “But then the female will go into nesting mode, and then that’s when you know it’s a for-sure deal that they’re going to lay eggs.”

That doesn’t mean they’ll be fertile. Gatorland gathers the eggs for incubation, and through a process called candling, development can be monitored.

For added drama, it took about 10 more days than usual for that white snout to pop out. But the new gators’ behavior has been normal (translation: feisty) since then, Lucas said. They are gaining weight on their diet of chicken, red meat and Croc Chow, a “specialized crocodilian pellet,” she said.

They are expected to reach normal alligator size just like the parents. They are currently 49 centimeters long.

McHugh said he hopes to have the new additions on display for visitors after the first of the year and that their names will be determined via social media.

It’s a feel-good story that can bolster Gatorland’s conservation messaging, said Savannah Boan, Gatorland Global ambassador, and it coincides with the attraction’s work with Jawlene, a rescued alligator missing its entire upper jaw.

“It’s really hard to get people’s head around loving something or caring about the conservation of something that can kill you or hurt you,” she said. “But when they’re alligators like this, that are this beautiful, or alligators that are survivors like Jawlene, it works really well in that people have a different take on that.”

Jawlene eating, adjusting to her new life at Gatorland

Gatorland officials expect word to spread through zoological circles quickly, and they won’t mess with leucistic success.

“We’re absolutely keeping mom and dad together. … They’ve got a nice little secluded and quiet spot for them,” McHugh said. “We’re just going to keep raising this one and hopefully we get some more offspring next year.”

dbevil@orlandosentinel.com