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Fly on the Wall 

September 21, 2010

Claude’s Birthday Bash

Claude the albino alligator was the lucky recipient of 15 fish-flavored cupcakes last Wednesday, in honor of his 15th birthday. In the aquarium prep kitchen, local birthday boys Dominic (turning 6), and Matthew (turning 15) joined biologists to decorate the cupcakes with colorful hummus “frosting,” and a confetti of flowers, berries, shrimp and fish.

After putting the finishing touches on the platter of treats, the party moved up to the Swamp for a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday to Claude” by visitors and staff. Biologists Brian and Nicole then climbed into the exhibit to toss the gator his cupcakes one by one. He snapped them up eagerly. As appetizing as fishy cupcakes are for alligators, they are decidedly less appealing to people. Dominic and Matthew received people-friendly cupcakes inspired by the reptilian star (vanilla cake with vanilla frosting, of course). Scroll down to check out both cupcake recipes.

Over the course of the week, Claude also received several birthday cards from fans, and a shiny new whistle for his training sessions from 6-year-old Dominic. On Claude’s behalf, thanks to everyone for your warm wishes! You can check out party highlights at http://www.ktvu.com/video/25024901/index.html.

Cupcake decorationsFeeding Claude

Albino-alligator-inspired Cupcakes for People
Recipe provided by the Academy Cafe

Vanilla Cupcakes (makes 12)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 egg yolk
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup milk

• Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
• Line 12 muffin cups (½-cup-sized) with cupcake papers.
• In a small bowl, combine the flour with salt and baking powder. Set aside.
• In a large bowl, on the medium speed of an electric mixer, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar gradually and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes.
• Combine the eggs and egg yolks together, then incorporate them one at a time, beating well after each addition.
• Add the dry ingredients in three parts, alternating with the milk and vanilla. With each addition, beat until the ingredients are incorporated, but do not over-beat.
• Using a rubber spatula, scrape down the batter in the bowl to make sure the ingredients are well blended. Carefully spoon the batter into the cupcake liners, filling them about 3/4 full.
• Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cupcake comes out clean.
• Cool the cupcakes in tins for 15 minutes. Remove from the tins and cool completely on a wire rack before frosting.

Vanilla Frosting (makes enough for 24 cupcakes, or one 9-inch layer cake)
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
6 to 8 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt

• Place the butter in a large mixing bowl. Add 4 cups of the sugar and beat together until fully combined.
• Then gradually add the milk and vanilla while on medium speed of an electric mixer. Beat until smooth and creamy, about 3 to 5 minutes.
• Gradually add the remaining sugar, 1 cup at a time, beating well after each addition (about 2 minutes), until the frosting is thick enough to be of good spreading consistency. You may not need to add all of the sugar.
• Add lemon juice and salt and continue to mix until fully blended.

Frosting can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days. (Use and store the frosting at room temperature because frosting will set if chilled.)

“Cupcakes” for Claude the Albino Alligator
Recipe provided by Academy biologists
2 C hot water
2 2/3 C ground gator chow (available from exotic animal food suppliers)
12 oz capelin
6 oz prawns
4 oz spinach
1 C parsley
2 oz grated carrots
1 2/3 cups phytoplankton
2 T marine fish flakes
2 oz omega-3 fatty acids
2 T gelatin
2 C Hummus
Food coloring
Berries, flowers, silverside fish and shrimp to garnish

• Grind gator chow pellets to a powder using a food processor.
• Place capelin, prawns, spinach, parsley, grated carrots, phytoplankton, fish flakes, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins into a food processor and grind until smooth.
• Stir gelatin into hot water until completely dissolved.
• Add gelatin liquid to blended capelin, prawns, etc. mixture.
• Stir in ground gator chow.
• Mix to a spackle-like consistency, adding more water if needed.
• Spoon into molds.
• Refrigerate overnight to let gelatin set.
• If desired, separate the hummus into four batches and color each with a different shade of food coloring.
• The next day, remove cupcakes from molds, and decorate with hummus frosting, berries, flowers, and small fish and shrimp.


Filed under: Aquarium — Helen @ 1:50 pm


  1. I have a question about Claude. In Werner Herzog’s film “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” he mentions a group of albino alligators that has a colony near the Chauvet Caves in France.
    Is he and the albino alligator that was at the SF Zoo for a while distantly related to these? Also, could the gene mutation that causes albinism come from the nuclear plant that is near there?
    I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you.

    Comment by Ingrid Lunk — January 31, 2012 @ 11:00 am

  2. Thanks for the great questions, Ingrid. Per our Naturalist Center:

    Albinism is a recessive genetic disorder that is passed on when an offspring receives both recessive copies of the gene from each of its parents. When both copies of the gene block the production of melanin, the animal has the traits of albinism. It is rather rare because: (1) it’s a recessive trait, which are less likely to be expressed; (2) those who express the gene in nature have a hard time hiding from their predators and are not likely to survive long enough to pass the trait on; and (3) the expressed traits often make the animal less “attractive” to other potential mates. They may simply not be recognized as mates or are seen as less desirable. Since albinism is a recessive gene, both parents may be carriers without actually exhibiting the trait themselves. This means that two ordinarily-colored parents may give birth to an albino offspring. This is the most common way for albinism to be passed on, as many albino animals do not survive to adulthood and thus do not produce offspring. Click here for more information about the TYR gene, believed to be responsible for making albinism happen.

    Antoine le Blanc was a white crocodile that was at the San Francisco Zoo a while ago. He was not albino, but was leucistic- because he had blue eyes (albinism means that there is no pigment in the animal’s body, including the iris of the eye. Interestingly, this is not true in albino humans who do have blue eyes.)

    This article from Slate states that the albino alligators featured in Herzog’s film were actually imported from Louisiana, so the nearby nuclear facility in France did not have anything to do with their albinism, plus talks a bit about the cooling water of nuclear facilities.

    All alligators are related at some point in history, so yes, it would be correct to say that Claude is a distant relative of the albino alligators featured in Herzog’s film. How closely related they are would have to be determined through DNA testing. Albinism can be more common in certain populations (generally in populations not getting genes from outside their population), so perhaps Claude’s ancestors and the ancestors of the albino alligators from Herzog’s film were once part of the same population.

    For more information about albinism, check out this article from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

    Comment by Helen — January 31, 2012 @ 1:52 pm

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