The cub's surprising coloration is not a form of albinism; it's because of rare recessive gene. The reason this mutation isn't more common is because the lack of camouflage doesn't offer much protection out in the wild. Not only does it make it stand out more to other lions who might attack it, but it's also a lot harder to sneak up on prey. Because lions in zoos don't need to worry about predation or starvation, it should grow up just fine.
The zoo shared pictures of the newborn with its mother on Facebook and the expressions are priceless:
Zoo officials stated on Facebook that it is possible that the cub's fur will darken as it gets older and also stressed that they had contacted someone in regards to the Lion Species Survival Plan (SSP), which ensures lions are being bred and cared for correctly—which is more important than it may seem.
Though it might not seem like one white lion cub is a big deal, it could be a sign of a bigger problem where the lions aren't being bred with enough genetic diversity. There's no reason to assume this is the case with this particular new white lion cub, but it's a good sign that the zoo is being cautious and investigating anyway.
To truly understand why the birth of a white lion cub is putting some on pause and causing the zoo to be proactive, we need to look to their cousin, the tiger.
People love white tigers. After all, they're different from their orange counterparts and have striking ice blue eyes. But many people don't know that the demand for white tigers comes at a tremendous price for the animals.
White tigers are not a separate species, they are ordinary Bengal tigers who—like the newborn white lion—have a rare, recessive genetic mutation. By breeding these tigers together, they create white offspring.
The problem is that because it's such a rare feature and so few cats have it normally, white tigers are heavily inbred in order to keep up with public demands to see them. These inbred cats can suffer a number of birth defects and other health disorders, which really reduces their quality of life and shortens their lifespan. For this reason, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums has banned white tiger breeding in its accredited facilities.
All that said, because the newborn white lion cub at Ellen Trout Zoo was not the product of unethical breeding, it makes it much easier to marvel at its individuality. There's no mention yet of when the cub will be on exhibit, but you can keep updated through the zoo's Facebook page.
Cover image: Ellen Trout Zoo via Facebook