Snowflake (gorilla)

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Snowflake (Catalan: Floquet de Neu, Spanish: Copito de Nieve; c. 1964 – November 24, 2003) was an albino gorilla. He is the only known white gorilla so far, and was the most popular resident of the Barcelona Zoo in Spain.


Originally named Nfumu Ngui in Fang language ("white gorilla") by his captor, he was then nicknamed Floquet de Neu (Catalan for little snowflake[1]) by his keeper Jordi Sabater Pi.[2][3] On his arrival to Barcelona where he was given an official reception by the then Mayor of Barcelona, Josep Maria de Porcioles, in November 1966, he was called Blancanieves ("Snow White") in the newspaper Tele/Exprés.[4] But he became famous with the name given to him by Sabater when National Geographic Magazine featured him on the main page in March 1967, with the English name Snowflake, which was a mistranslation. This name spread among the press (Stern, Life, Paris-Match). Sabater himself called the gorilla Copi or Floquet, and in the later years Nfumu. He was also known as "Little Buttercup",[5] and as the "Vanilla Gorilla". The asteroid 95962 Copito, discovered by Spanish astronomer J. Manteca, is named in his honour.[6]


The official story is that an ape specialist, Jordi Sabater Pi, found the animal in 1966 in Ikunde, in the Spanish colonial enclave of Rio Muni in West Africa ( Spanish Equatorial Guinea), which is the modern-day nation of Equatorial Guinea, a country which is also known for its Goliath frogs, which weigh 8-9 lbs.[7] The only albino gorilla known to man, he was captured outside Nko, in the Equatorial forest of Nko, near Rio Campo, in the Rio Muni region, on October 1, 1966, by Benito Mañé, an ethnic Fang farmer, who had killed the rest of his group (all charcoal black in color) in order to obtain this unusual albino specimen. During the massacre, his mother was shot by Mañé whilst she tore a banana stem apart in his banana plantation. The small creature was found clinging to his mother's neck, his head buried deep in her black fur. Benito kept him at his own home for four days and then transported him to Bata, where he was purchased by Sabater Pi, who worked for the Barcelona Zoo's Ikunde Center, in Spanish Equatorial Guinea, and paid 10,500 pesetas for the gorilla. Sabator Pi actually told Benito that he would take the white gorilla and pay him something if he lived. Otherwise he would return the dead body. A National Geographic-funded study of the behavior of Western Lowland gorillas was being conducted by Tulane University's Delta Regional Primate Research Center in Covington, Louisiana, in the wild in Rio Muni, was underway at the time of Snowflake's discovery, which had Jorge Sabater Pi as a participant.[8] Dr. Arthur J. Riopelle, who authored two National Geographic articles about Snowflake, was the director of the Delta Regional Primate Research Center.[9] Dr. Arthur Riopelle, Ph.D., was also the director of an in depth study of Snowflake,[10] at the Barcelona Zoo, which was funded by the National Geographic Society and the National Institutes of Health. Part of Dr. Riopelle's research was to find out whether Snowflake had a rare blood disorder which sometimes afflicts albinos.[11] He credited Barcelona Zoo director Antonio Jonch Cuspinera, for giving him almost unlimited access to both Snowflake, and to Muni, the normal coloured male gorilla of the same age, acquired by Barcelona Zoo as a basis for comparison. In addition to Snowflake and Muni, the Barcelona Zoo also had a young female gorilla named Afanengui, who was donated to the zoo by the National Geographic Society[12][13] When Afanengui was introduced to Snowflake's enclosure he started to defy Muni's dominance. Snowflake had poor vision, which is associated with albinism, and this may have undermined his confidence. It has been suggested that Snowflake may have been an outcast amongst wild gorillas, as an albino, because he adapted so rapidly to captivity, thriving on human attention. There is a picture of Snowflake and Muni in the International Wildlife Encyclopedia, with the following caption: "Quite a contrast: Snowflake, a rare baby albino gorilla, with a companion at the Barcelona Zoo. The young gorilla has unpigmented skin and hair, but has blue eyes. Not only does he look special, but he also seems to require more affection from his keeper than the other baby gorillas."[14] If Snowflake was rejected by wild gorillas because he was an albino then it seems that what was a detriment to him in the wild worked to his advantage in the zoo, making him the focus of human attention, which he evidently craved. He may not have survived in the wild. Zoos have found it vitually impossible to house two adult male gorillas together, although there was a plan to attempt to establish a bachelor group at the St. Louis Zoo, comprised of surplus males from the SSP. When Snowflake first arrived in Barcelona he lived in the apartment of zoo veterinarian Dr. Roman Luera Carbo and his wife, where he demonstrated jealousy toward the family Basset hound, Pompeia, who seemed to take it all in her stride.[15] Later Snowflake shared his zoo enclosure with a large Alsatian, or German shepherd, puppy as a companion. Snowflake was featured in the National Geographic documentary "Great Zoos of the World", and in an article on albino animals, which appeared in the National Geographic School Bulletin. He was more recently featured in an episode of Nature on PBS, titled: "Snowflake: The White Gorilla"[16] According to Kailash Sankhala, who was director of the National Zoological Park Delhi, and of Project Tiger, albino animals, such as an albino python, were highly coveted and prized by zoos, and large sums would be payed to acquire them. Snowflake was considered "beyond price".[17] Snowflake was the most valuable animal in the history of the world, and has been described as a "freak of nature".[18]

Snowflake was a Western Lowland Gorilla. He spent most of his life at the Barcelona Zoo in the Parque de la Ciudadela. He was known worldwide, mentioned in tourist guides and put on postcards, becoming the unofficial mascot for the city. Barcelona Zoo director Antonio Jonch in wrote in 1967:

"The gorilla was a male about two years of age. Morphologically it was normal except that it was white, skin and hair being completely devoid of pigmentation. The eye had a blueish sclera, a normal cornea, and a light blue iris which was very transparent to transillumination. Accommodation and refraction were normal. The media were transparent and the fundus of the eye normal and totally depigmented. The choroidal vessels were perfectly visible and the pupil was normal. The animal displayed marked photophobia which caused it to close its eyes repeatedly when exposed to bright light. In diffuse light similar to that in its biotope, we calculated that it blinked on an average of 20 times a minute."[19]

It has been deterined that Snowflake was the product of inbreeding. Writing in Live Science, posted on 06/17/2013 8:30 am EDT (Huff Post Science April 8, 2014) Stephanie Pappas wrote: "A few studies had attempted to get to the bottom of what caused Snowflake's color-free complexion, but the exact genetic mutation had never been found. Now Spanish researchers have sequenced the gorilla's entire genome, revealing that Snowflake was probably the offspring of a pairing between uncle and niece. Using blood from Snowflake, researchers led by Tomas Marques-Bonet of the Institut de Biologia Evolutiva at the University of Pompeu Fabia sequenced the entire genome of the late ape. Comparing the sequence with those of humans and nonalbino gorillas, Marques-Bonet and his colleaguesnarrowed down the cause of Snowflake's albinism to a single gene, known as SLC45A2. Snowflake inherited a mutant form of this gene from both parents."[20] Snowflake had previously been described as a yellow albino. A mutation of SLC45A2 is responsible for the pelage of the Royal white tiger of Rewa.[21]

Snowflake (studbook number 0281) has two great grandsons, which were born at the Royal Burgers' Zoo in Arnhem,in the Netherlands. They are named Nukta (studbook number 8249)[22] and N'Akou (studbook number 2007). Their mother was Snowflake's grand daughter Nimba (studbook number 1517), who was born at Barcelona Zoo. Her mother was Snowflake's daughter Machinda (studbook number 0664), who is still living at Barcelona Zoo. N'Akou was born on Nov. 4, 2009[23] Strangely enough N'Kou has pink fingers, which is perhaps suggestive of partial albinism.


Snowflake resting in his enclosure

Snowflake was a prolific breeder fathering 21 offspring (of whom six survived to adulthood) with three females, which were almost evenly divided with ten males and 11 females, and lived to see his grandchildren. None of his offspring were albino, but all would have been heterozygotes, carrying the albino gene as a recessive, since they each would have inherited 50% of his genes (including the gene for albinism.) There would have been a mathematical probability that 50% of his grand children would have inherited the albino gene, since they would have 25% of his genes, and it would be likely that 25% of his great grand children would carry the albino gene. His son, Urko (studbook number 0667), died at Barcelona Zoo in August 2003. Urko fathered a daughter in 1988, who only lived about two months (studbook number 1059), by his half sister, Snowflake's daughter Ntao (studbook number 0685), at Barcelona Zoo Since both parents were albino gene carriers they could have produced an albino baby. Ntao died at the Apenheul Primate Park in Apeldoorn, Netherlands. At first, the Barcelona Zoo was not aware just how unique of a specimen Snowflake was. They sent a message to Sabater Pi saying, "Please send more white gorillas." The zoo later hoped to produce a genetic strain and an entire family group of white gorillas through selective breeding. Another of Snowflake's daughters, Virunga (studbook number 0696) lived at Barcelona Zoo, and had a daughter named N'Tua (studbook number 1874), who still lives at the Barcelona Zoo. Snowflake has a living daughter named Kena (studbook number 0767), who was a twin. She lives at Blackpool Municipal Zoo in England. Her mother was Bimvilli, and she had six offspring of her own, four of which are still living. These are Batanga, Kiondo, N'Dowe, and Kera. Batanga lives at Barcelona Zoo. N'Dowe and Kiondo, both males, live at Paignton Zoo in England, and Kera, who is female, lives at Bristol Zoo in England. A great grand daughter of Snowflake named N'Gumbi (Batanga's daughter), lives at Barcelona Zoo. Snowflake still has one surviving son, named Bindunga II (studbook number 0769), who lives at the Fukuoka Zoo in Fukuoka, Japan. He has no offspring of his own. Snowflake has three surviving offspring, which include Bindunga II, Kena, and Machinda, a daughter (studbook number 0664 previously mentioned), who lives at Barcelona Zoo. The Barcelona Zoo had a protocol in place to have Snowflake's testicles harvested, upon his death, and placed in the frozen zoo so as to reserve the option of having more offspring from him in the future. Snowflake's genes would have been considered particularly valuable because he was wild caught, and therefore one of the genetic founders to the captive population of Western Lowland gorillas, which are endangered, and are being managed by AZA SSP/EEP captive breeding programs for wildlife conservation. In 1986 the Barcelona Zoo enlisted British zoo veterinarian David Taylor, who worked for Madrid Zoo, to collect sperm from Snowflake for artificial insemination. Although the attempt was unsuccessful, the story was carried by newspapers the world over, and David Taylor devoted a chapter to this and to Snowflake, in his book "Vet on the Wild Side: Further Adventures of a Wildlife Vet".[24] There has even been talk of cloning Snowflake.

At the time of death Snowflake was thought to be between 38 and 40 years old; the average lifespan of a gorilla in the wild is 25. Since 2001, he had suffered from an unusual form of skin cancer, almost certainly related to his albinism condition (see SLC45A2), known as oculocutaneous albinism type 1 or OCA1. In September 2003, it was publicly announced that he was dying.[25] Thousands visited the zoo to say goodbye before he was euthanized in November 2003.


A room dedicated to Snowflake

A scholarship for research on primatology was created in memory of and homage to the albino gorilla. Snowflake's fame also helped to promote awareness of the endangered gorilla species. "If we do nothing there will be no more gorillas in 30 years," Sabater Pi said at the presentation of his book.

The gorilla became a main character in the novel Memòries d'en Floquet de Neu ("Snowflake's Memories") by Catalan writer Toni Sala. Sabater Pi also dedicated a book to the gorilla, under the title Copito para Siempre ("Snowflake Forever"). He also makes a brief appearance in Italo Calvino's novel Mr. Palomar. Nature on PBS devoted an episode to him. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins wrote of Snowflake in his poem, "Searching," published in his 2008 collection, Ballistics. [26]

Snowflake appears on the front cover of dance music act Basement Jaxx's album Rooty.[27]

While playing at FC Barcelona, Dutch football player Ronald Koeman was nicknamed Copito de Nieve because of his blond hair.

Snowflake appeared on The Triplets (Les Tres Bessones) episode "The Triplets meet King Kong" as a guest of honor for the appearance of King Kong in Barcelona's Olympic Stadium.

In 2011, there was a CGI film called Snowflake, the White Gorilla that depicts the fictional life of Snowflake (voiced by Ariana Grande).

In 2013, it was revealed that Snowflake was an albino gorilla due to inbreeding.[28]


  1. ^ <The Name Is Snowflake, The Pittsburgh Post Gazette, May 28, 1967
  2. ^ Sabater's pictures, at the Sabater Pi Collection at the Universitat de Barcelona
  3. ^ <"Little Snowflake, World's First White Gorilla", The Palm Beach Post, Feb. 22, 1967
  4. ^
  5. ^ Taylor, Henry J., "An Animal Lover: Elephant Is Real King Of Jungle", Ocala Star-Banner, July 28, 1967, page 4
  6. ^ "Asteroide Copito de Nieve"
  7. ^ <"White Gorilla a Prima Donna, Speidel Says", The Milwaukee Journal, Wednesday November 8, 1967
  8. ^ <Riopelle, A.J., "Snowflake the world's first white gorilla", National Geographic 131: 442-8, March 1967>
  9. ^ <"Albino Gorilla Captured", The Montreal Gazette, Feb. 23,1967>
  10. ^ <The Marvels of Animal Behavior, Published by the National Geographic Society, 1972, pgs. 363-365
  11. ^ <"Baby White Gorilla is Spoiled", Reading Eagle, Dec. 25, 1968, pg. 15
  12. ^ <Riopelle, A.J., "Growing up with Snowflake", National Geographic 138:490-503, October 1970
  13. ^ <The Marvels of Animal Behavior, Published by the National Geographic Society, 1972, pgs. 363-365
  14. ^ <International Wildlife Encyclopedia Vol. 20, Marshall Cavendish Corporation/New York, 1970, pg. 2710
  15. ^ <"Unique in all gorilladom", Life magazine, March 31, 1967, pgs. 69-73
  16. ^ <Nature on PBS: Snowflake: The White Gorilla,
  17. ^ <Sankhala, K.S., Tiger: The Story of the Indian Tiger, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977
  18. ^ <The International Wildlife Encyclopedia Vol. 7, Marshall Cavendish Corporation, New York, 1968, pg. 923
  19. ^ Duplaix-Hall, Nicole; Antonio Jonch (1967). "The White Gorilla (Gorilla g. gorilla) At Barcelona Zoo". International Zoo Yearbook. Vol. XIII. London: Zoological Society of London. p. 196. OCLC 604039131. 
  20. ^ <Pappas,Stephanie,Albino Gorilla 'Snowflake' Was Inbred, Gene Sequence Shows, Live Science posted 06/17/2013 8:30 am EDT Huff Post Science April 8, 2014
  21. ^ <SLC45A2>
  22. ^ <Western Lowland Gorilla
  23. ^ <Western Lowland Gorilla
  24. ^ <Taylor, David, Vet on the Wild Side: Further Adventures of a Wildlife Vet, Arrow (Random Century Group), 1991
  25. ^ Staff writers (22 September 2003). "Albino gorilla dying of skin cancer". BBC News. Retrieved 1 June 2013. 
  26. ^
  27. ^ "The world's only albino gorilla was the result of INCEST - and his lack of colour meant he died from skin cancer, claim scientists". 19 June 2013. Daily Mail. Retrieved 21 June 2013. 
  28. ^

Further reading[edit]

  • Riopelle, A.J., "Snowflake the world's first white gorilla", National Geographic 131:442-8, March 1967
  • "Unique in all gorilladom: Roman Luera Carbo's Snowflake", Life 62:69-70, March 31, 1967
  • Riopelle, A.J., "Growing up with Snowflake", National Geographic 138:490-503, October 1970
  • Jonch, Antonio, "The White Gorilla (Gorilla g. gorilla) At Barcelona Zoo", International Zoo Yearbook Vol. XIII, 1967, pg. 196
  • Schmeck, Harold M. Jr., "First Known White Gorilla Is Found", The New York Times F. 23 pgs. 1:5 & 41:2
  • "Rare albino gorilla dies", The Montreal Gazette, November 25, 2003, pg. A.21
  • T. Rhodes, "Story Of My Life", CH 7 pg. 154

External links[edit]