Last Wednesday, local photographer Davis Gaffga emailed photographs he had just taken of a whitetail deer on Gin Lane in Southampton Village. Deer sightings in our local villages were unusual some years ago but have been commonplace for two decades now. What made these photos unusual was the color of the deer: nearly completely white. This odd feature has prompted people to refer to these creatures as “ghost deer.”This is one of several white-colored deer sightings reported over the past decade. A large, mostly white buck photographed in Caumsett State Park is prominently displayed on the “fun things to do” page of the Five Harbors (Centerport, Lloyd Harbor, Huntington Harbor, Cold Spring Harbor and Northport) website. In February 2011, wildlife photographer Luke Ormand photographed a white deer in the Calverton area. And a number of people reported seeing a white-colored deer in the Sagaponack area a number of years ago.
As the photos and descriptions note, the fur is not completely white, and eyes and noses are pigmented. So these are not true albino deer, which have been reported in the wild.
This condition, called piebaldism, is a rare inherited characteristic resulting from a genetic mutation that inhibits the development of melanocyte cells in certain areas of the skin and hair. Some references state that 1 percent of whitetail deer are born with the condition, and other characteristics include scoliosis, short legs, short lower jaw and a bowing of the snout (called “Roman nose”). In humans, piebaldism most often manifests itself as a patch of white hair directly above the forehead, or white forelock.
Piebaldism has been noted in many other species. In 2010, Ceal Havemeyer of Bridgehampton sent me photographs of a white-colored gray squirrel taken in her backyard. A keen observer of wildlife, Ceal also noted that the whitish hair appeared longer than that of the normal gray-colored ones, a characteristic also mentioned by wildlife photographer Leonard Lee Rue III in his book “The World of the White-tailed Deer,” published in 1962.
At that time, Rue commented that piebald deer were becoming more common. His theory was that deer predators—wolves and mountain lions—that would have quickly eliminated the highly visible piebald deer had become too scarce to make an impact, allowing the piebalds to survive and reproduce. He also mentions that piebalds have impaired hearing and, other than their mother, are avoided by other deer.
Following Rue’s theory, the relative increase in ghost deer sightings may be another indication of the ecological imbalance that has developed here on Long Island between deer and their environment.