White Goats?

Genetic Variations in San Clemente Island Goats

White goat running feral on San Clemente Island courtesy of the U.S. Navy

What's all the fuss about San Clemente Island goat color?

As we have so few descendants of the original San Clemente Island goats brought from the island, all breeders are very wary of goats that may have been crossbred to another breed. There was some justification for this fear, as a few San Clemente Island goats and their progeny were removed from the breed registry a few years ago when they were decided to be of mixed origin. And many breeders have never seen color variations on San Clemente Island goats.

The traditional and most common color of San Clemente Island goats is what initially appears to be a black-and-brown buckskin pattern. Look a little more closely, and you'll probably find that the black looks a bit reddish-black in the sunlight. Look even more closely, and you may see some light-colored hairs hiding in the tan area of a goat. White hairs? Sort of.

Redefining "White"
Let's get into goat color genetics. Pretty tricky stuff, but you'll still enjoy Dr. Sponenberg's paper, Goat Color Explained. Dr. Sponenberg is with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, is a reputable geneticist, and is also an expert on heritage-breed goats. He's definately the one with the answers here. But they're a bit complicated, so the easy, condensed version is this—

Reddish-brown can show up as almost black or almost white. The "white" that can show up on San Clemente Island goats is just an extremely pale version of reddish-brown. And although it might be called, by some, "creamy-white" or "rosy-white," Dr. Sponenberg assures us that using the word 'white' is OK. So 'white' it shall be.

Here's another white buck. This photo shows Jim Ziegler, who worked with Tom Beene's round-up crew in the early 1970's.

Jim Ziegler on San Clemente Island, early 1970's. Courtesy of Jim Ziegler.

Patches or Solid?
The San Clemente Island goats removed from the island were mostly a variety of browns in the buckskin pattern. The Fund for Animals, which provided adoption centers for the goats once they reached the mainland, reports seeing goats with white patches "the size of your hand." They did not notice any goats that bore this color throughout.

But the Fund for Animals was not the only adoption center. Many goats were adopted out by the Clapps. Here is a photo of the island goats kept at Carl Allen's Kern River Wildlife Sanctuary while they awaited mainland adoption. (Excuse the photocopy quality, but the original and negatives were destroyed years ago.)

White goat at Kern Valley courtesy of  Casey Christie

Should Breeders Avoid White San Clemente Island Goats?
In many animals, white coloring is often linked to genetic defects. However, that type of white is a "pure" white, which is an absence of color. Not so with the white found on San Clemente Island goats, which is really just another shade of brown, remember?

The ancestors of San Clemente Island goats on Santa Catalina Island showed white, as did the feral goats on San Clemente Island. Purebred mainland San Clemente Island goats also occasionally show white. White on San Clemente Island goats is no indication of their genetic purity or impurity. However, as it is not very common, many look at white coloring with suspicion.

The genetic links between the uncommon white and the more common darker browns on these goats to other genetic traits is unknown. As we are seeking to save all available gene pools for this breed, and do not want any losses or imbalances to occur due to fads or fashion, we ask that breeders keep genetic variance and hardiness in mind as breeding goals, and keep any other goals (such as color selection) secondary to these.

The History Behind the White
San Clemente Island goats came from Santa Catalina in 1875. Santa Catalina feral goats had a wide variety of colors and patterns.
In 1980, Phyllis Larsen studied San Clemente Island goats that had been rounded-up for adoption. Of 484 goats, 14 were what she describes as a "rosy-white" or a "creamy-white." 23 had white or pale patches.

A bit of confusion comes in when Dr. Larsen's paper states that white goats were introduced to the north side of the island in 1962 as targets for sport hunting for Navy personnel. This fact is hard to substantiate—the source of this statement was not on the island in 1962, and does not recollect saying or not saying this in 1980.
The botanists who studied the flora of the island in 1962 have no recollection of white goats being introduced, and are skeptical of the assertion, but were not always present and not privy to Navy business.
Mule deer were introduced onto the island for Navy personnel hunting in 1962, and so the idea of the Navy introducing white goats for easy game is certainly a historical possibility. But if you think about it, there were already thousands of goats on the island, and Navy personnel do not usually need oversimplified targets for sport hunting.
We were happy to finally get a call from Mr. Bensenhaver, a very nice gentleman who was stationed on San Clemente Island in 1956 and 1957. He reports that at that time, there were so many goats that they were certainly getting in everyone's way. Mr. Bensenhaver, a farmer at heart, would take any orphan kids and raise them. He sent us some very interesting photos that he took on the island in 1956, including this one:

Photo by Ervin Bensenhaver, 1956

There are no clear records of color variation between the northern and southern herds, which were mostly, but not exclusively, separated.

Color Confusion
Breeders are still a bit confused about white coloring in San Clemente Island goats at this time. There have been reports of breeding for pale coloration, culling goats with white patches, suspecting the authenticity of heritage based on the presence or absence of white, and one breeder just ended up with a lot of white goats by accident with a 'closed' herd.

In response, we ask breeders to view the genetic make-up and breed variances of San Clemente Island goats as they are now, which is still quite close to the way they were on the island. They can show "white," but they don't all need to.
Don't judge a goat by its color.

Our Latest "White" Goats
Here are a couple of recent goats showing white. These two are not related (well, at least not related on SCI terms!) The buckling on the left shows white patches. The doeling on the right is more interesting—unfortunately she died very young, but her breeder will repeat the breeding so we have a little hope for more of these!

For more photos of San Clemente Island goats on the island, please visit our Gallery page.

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Thanks for the information on this page goes to J., Phyllis Larsen, Phil Sponenberg, Casey Christie, Peter Raven, Donald Johnson, Jim Blakely, Steve Timbrook, Reid Moran, Ralph Philbrick, Steve Junak, Bob Thorne, Don Bixby, E. Bensenhaver, J. Ziegler, and to our San Clemente Island goat breeders.

San Clemente Island Goat Association