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Understanding genetics for pet snakes


Genetic manipulation is responsible for a wide variety of colors and patterns among pet snakes. If you’ve ever spent any amount of time in a reptile section of any pet store you can’t help but notice the stunning difference in snakes of the same species due to the tireless efforts of breeders. In zoology these differences are known as morphs. Generally you won’t find many physical differences in snakes of the same species when it comes to morphs, but color differences is very common.

You will frequently see the term wild-type while looking at this and other guides to morphing. This refers to a snake’s appearance in the wild. It doesn’t mean that you won’t find any genetically morphed snakes in the wild, but that it is the “normal” appearance of the snake when found in its native habitat. All morphs originate from these wild-type animals so we use them as baseline examples of the particular snakes appearance.

What causes morphs in snakes?
Before we answer the question of what causes it is important to understand “what is” a morph. Boiled down to the most basic form a morph is a mutation, a departure from the expected and normal appearance. This happens at the DNA level. It should be understood that a morph occurring in a snake doesn’t mean it is genetic. It must be proven-out over several generations of breedings to exhibit that the trait in question is passed along to other snakes within it’s lineage.

In snakes these genetic mutation (morphs) are caused by humans selectively breeding the snakes for different color traits. Almost all animals have been selectively bred by humans at one point or another. Dogs and cats are prime examples. Those animals have been selectively bred for thousands of years to obtain hundreds of different types with all manner of looks, temperments, and color patterns. The same thing happens with snakes except it has only been the past 20 or 30 years that people have really been working on making morphs of their natural appearances.

On a more scientific level morphs are the result of a living creatures dna not producing the expected or “normal” results. For instance an off-white color isn’t normal for Ball Pythons, but as you can see by the picture to the right they exist. Now the python in the picture wasn’t the result of an accident. It came by way of very deliberate breeding designed to make them more and more hypomelanistic over the years. This selective breeding has produced an animal nearly free of melanin I say nearly free because if you look closely at the picture you can still see its natural pattern emerging through the white. Obviously snakes that look like that wouldn’t fair very well in the wild because of their total lack of camouflage.

How can I tell if my snake is a morph?
One way to tell is simply by looking at it. If you’ve done your research about choosing a pet snake you should certainly know what your snake looks like. If you get a snake that looks like yours physically, but is a different color and/or pattern there is a good chance it is a morph. Most breeders will charge you more for morphs than they will for normals as well.

But what if you have a morph that isn’t displaying any color or pattern aberrations that can distinguish it from a normal snake? In that case you have what is known as a gene. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist just that it is “pushed away” by a dominant or co-dominant gene. You might remember from basic high school biology class when you were taught about eye color. The usual example is one parent having brown eyes and one parent having blue eyes. If you remember the lesson usually stated that the offspring of both parents would have brown eyes, because brown is dominate while blue is recessive. When you see it written out in punnet square the dominate gene is always expressed as a capital letter (eg; A,B,C, etc) while the recessive is expressed as a lower case letter (eg:a,b,c, etc).

Suppose that you have a yellow snake and a red snake that you breed together. After they hatch you find that all but one of them is red. That one that isn’t red is kind of an orange color. So you set that one aside and sell the rest. After a few years you breed the orange snake to another red snake and they have all red offspring. You keep all of their offspring and a few years later you breed them to other red snakes of the same type. Each of those four snakes has four snakes making a total of 16 offspring. Out of that 16 offspring 4 of them are yellow, 11 are red, and 1 is orange. In this example the red is the dominant gene, yellow is co-dominant, and orange is recessive. Notice how it took multiple breeding’s and generations for the recessive gene to show up? Think of it in terms of gambling. You may or may not hit the jackpot in trying to get a recessive gene to prove-out, but it’s fun to try.

Why are morphs of snakes worth more than the wild-type?
In the simplest of terms it is because they are rarer than their normal counterparts. How rare depends on too many factors to list here, but their pricing will reflect how rare (and in demand) they are.

The real question is why are they so rare? The main reason is because they aren’t normal. They take extra effort to produce. Sometimes it’s easier than others, but it is always harder than producing wild-types of the same species. In the final equation they are worth more because you and I as buyers are willing to pay more for them. It is simple market economics in a supply and demand industry.

Are colors the only things that genes affect in snakes?
No, snakes are just like any other living animal and a variety of factors can be affected by genetics. One example is the “dwarf” lines of Reticulated and Burmese pythons. Someone manipulated the genetics of normal sized animals to come up with dwarf versions of them. Basically they created a midget snake by breeding and proving out a gene in their bloodlines which causes stunted growth.

Sometimes the genetic “manipulation” isn’t intended and causes abnormal behavior in otherwise normal animals. An example is the “Spider Ball” (pictured left). The Spider mutation has not only produced amazing animals, but also has left a strange side effect in some of those animals. It is called “spinning”. I’ve seen it twice in one instance the snake looked like it was bopping its head to some unheard music. In the other instance it looked like it was having a seizure. We know that this condition of spinning is genetic because it has been passed down from one generation to the next.

How much money will I make off of morphs?
Probably not much. Unless you happen to prove-out a morph that no one else knows about. There’s money to be made in the snake industry, but it is like anything else in life. You’ll have to work hard and you’ll probably spend a considerable amount of time, energy, money, and resources before you even begin to turn a profit, let alone “make money”. Go into it with the idea that you’re going to have some fun, learn a few things and consider the money you spend towards morph projects as disposable income that you’ll never see again. And if you do see it again be pleasantly surprised.

This was meant to be a very basic introduction to genetics. It is not meant to be a “be all end all” authoritative guide. There are many resources available that are more suited towards that end. This guide is only meant to briefly introduce you to the idea of morphs and the endless possibilities that are potentially out there.

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