Happy 15th Birthday, Claude! Image courtesy of Ron DeCloux © California Academy of Sciences.
I have a birthday month in common with Claude, the Albino Alligator at the California Academy of Sciences! On Wednesday morning, September 15, 2010 – Claude celebrated his golden birthday and turned 15 years old. He was serenaded by staff and guests alike signing happy birthday and several children, also with September birthdays, fed Claude cupcakes that aquarium biologists had made. They were not chocolate or vanilla but fish flavored especially to suit Claude’s taste buds.
When born, Claude only weighed 2 ounces. At fifteen, he has tilted the scales at 181 pounds and sprouted to over eight feet. At his last physical earlier this month, biologists counted 76 teeth. He can often be found on his favorite rock in the swamp exhibit which is heated between 78 and 95 degrees. I first saw Claude when he arrived with Bonnie back in 2008. He was taken out of his crate given and vet check and then put back into the crate and hoisted over the railing into his new home. Since then, Bonnie has moved to a farm in Florida. “Because he is albino, he has reduced vision. Claude would go into the water and bump into things, and Bonnie would snap at him…Claude has been more active since Bonnie left,” biologist Brian Freiermuth said. “He is better by himself, as he was stressed out with her there. He has interactions with his turtles. He is eating well. He knows his name and responds to whistle commands.”
One morning, when I was with the biologists, I saw Claude coming to whistle and station calls. They would use the whistle to show audibly where they were throwing food. The biologists and Claude work very well together during feeding time! Claude has become a favorite amongst staff and guests alike and is become one of the icons of the new Academy.
What is wonderful about this is that he also conveys our mission in a truly unique way. Carol Tang, Director of Public Engagement, noted, “There are no white alligators in the wild because they’re too show-offy…They get eaten in the wild. So, you can use that to talk about food chains and adaptation. You can talk about how alligators are green because they live in the swamp where there are plants and trees and they can be camouflaged…You can also use Claude to talk about variation, which is the fuel of evolution. It’s one mutation in Claude’s DNA that causes this kind of albinism. That shows how sensitive our DNA can be.”
Claude can live up to 80 years in captivity which is a far measure longer than he would have survived in the wild. He is still a young alligator on his golden birthday and he will be a beloved and celebrated icon of the Academy for years to come.