Using frozen blood from Snowflake, researchers led by Tomas Marques-Bonet of the Institut de Biologia Evolutiva at the University of Pompeu Fabra sequenced the entire genome of the late ape. Comparing that sequence with those of humans and nonalbino gorillas, Marques-Bonet and his colleagues narrowed down the cause of Snowflake's albinism to a single gene, known as SLC45A2. Snowflake inherited a mutant form of this gene from both of his parents.
The gene has previously been linked to albinism in mice, horses, chickens and a species of fish.
Next, the researchers combed through Snowflake's genome looking for stretches of DNA that were identical due to inbreeding. They found that 12 percent of the genes from Snowflake's mom and pop matched, a number that points to an uncle and niece mating as the most likely parentage for Snowflake.
No one else has reported inbreeding in Western lowland gorillas, Marques-Bonet told LiveScience, though some other gorilla subspecies with small populations have been known to turn to family to mate. And with habitat loss, gorillas may struggle to find a place to disperse from their original family.