In my last article, I detailed the role the Albino Ball Python played in changing the “lowly brown and black” Ball Python, simply called a “normal”, into the most sought after snake in the herpetological world. The sequence of events that preceded this transformation make an interesting story.
Bob Clark, a name known to everyone who has ever been involved with the breeding of snakes, is the individual responsible for bringing us the Albino Ball Python. He started in the 1980’s, not with Ball Pythons, but with Burmese Pythons. The Burmese Python was a very popular snake during the 1980’s and 1990’s for a couple of reasons: their large size (they can grow to be 20’) and their docile nature. His became a household name among enthusiasts for being the first person to successfully breed the Albino Burmese Python.
At that time, we didn’t have any idea the Burmese Python would become the troublesome species here in Florida that it is today. In the early 1990’s there were no restrictions on keeping Burmese Pythons. Hundreds of them were housed in less than secure cages by many of the South Florida importers. When Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, several of these businesses were completely destroyed. The snakes that were being held by them escaped into the wild. Many of them survived because the ecological conditions in South Florida are so similar to the habitat in their countries of origin, such as Burma, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, etc. Today these snakes have become established as a breeding population in the Everglades, wreaking the usual havoc caused by a large, aggressive, non-native species, with no natural predators. Adding to this situation is the fact that many of these snakes, when raised by individuals to maturity, became difficult to keep in captivity due to housing and feeding requirements. Consequently, they have been released by owners who had no viable alternatives for their disposal.
Today there are prohibitions regarding the ownership of Burmese Pythons, as well as other large snakes. Efforts to remove the Burmese Pythons from the Everglades and surrounding areas have been initiated, but continue to be problematic. As a result the small, non-threatening Ball Python has become a favorite for breeders and the pet trade.
Early in 1989, Olaf Pronk, a friend of Bob Clark’s living in the Netherlands, sent Bob a photograph of an Albino Ball Python that had been captured in Ghana, Africa. Bob imported that snake and embarked on his first-ever breeding of the Ball Python.
It is necessary to understand basic genetics to follow the steps Bob took to produce the first captive born Albino Ball Pythons. In all heterosexual reproduction, the newly developed embryo receives a complex of genetic material, called genes, organized in pairs. One gene in each pair comes from each of the parents. An Albino Ball Pythons is not truly albino, but amelanistic, because the animal produces no black pigment, known as melanin. It has no black pigment because the gene that controls the production of melanin is defective. This defective (or recessive) gene, when paired with a normal (or dominant) gene, produces a snake with the expected coloration. This snake, while appearing normal, carries this recessive gene, which results in a snake called heterozygous for amelanism (commonly called albanism). When two of these recessive genes occur in the same gene pair, the snake cannot produce black pigment at all, and we get the beautiful yellow and white of the Albino Ball Python.
The Albino Ball Bython that Bob Clark imported had two recessive genes for amelanism. When he bred that Albino to a normal ball python, all of the resulting offspring inherited one recessive gene from the Albino parent and one dominant gene from the normal parent. The babies all looked normal, but were carrying one recessive gene. Bob raised them to maturity and bred them back to their Albino parent. (Line breeding produces no adverse results in ball pythons for at least 3 generations.) Half of the generation resulting from that breeding would then be carrying both recessive genes, producing no black pigment. Thus, in 1992, Bob produced the first captive born Albino Ball Pythons.
Bob offered his Albino babies for $7500. This peaked the interest of many of the breeders, and imports began to be scrutinized more closely. Breeders were looking for what they hoped would be the next “big morph”. And they found it! It was originally called a Pastel Jungle Ball Python for its bright yellow shades and region of origin, the more humid areas in Africa. The name was eventually shortened to Pastel Ball Python.
Other their coloring, Pastels were found to differ from Albinos in a very significant way. When Greg Graziani bred his Pastel to a normal in 1995, half of the babies turned out to be Pastels! This meant that the Pastel gene was dominant trait, requiring only one gene (one half of the gene pair) to pass it on.
Greg offered his Pastel babies for $8000 and decided to hold back a pair of siblings to raise to maturity to breed back to each other. At that time, siblings were not often bred back to each other due to the high risk of birth defects, such as snakes born with only one eye or a kinked tail. But Greg decided to try it to see if the yellow coloring would be enhanced in the babies.
To his delight, about 1/4 of the babies did have brighter coloring! The only way this was possible was if the Pastel gene was not actually a dominant trait, but, in fact, a co-dominant trait. When two Pastels, each having one gene in the gene pair producing pastels, 1/4 of the babies inherit both genes for Pastel in the same gene pair. This produces an exaggerated Pastel, now called a Super Pastel. Several of these babies sold for $10,000 each, and suddenly breeding Ball Pythons had become a serious endeavor with serious income potential!
In 1999, Brian Barczyk of BHB Enterprises introduced the Pinstripe Ball Python. This morph has a pattern of fine black lines on a solid tan background. Also in 1999, Kevin McCurley of New England Reptile Distributors (NERD) brought the what he named the Spider Ball Python onto the scene. He called this morph a Spider because of its pattern of black lines on a yellowish background, resembling a spider’s web.
Kevin was responsible for another very important discovery. In 2001, he crossed a Spider with a Pastel. The resulting morph was not a blending of the two traits, as one might expect, but a totally new morph! It was yellow with black bars, so he named it a Bumble Bee Ball Python. These new morphs also sold for around $8000 each.
Many more morphs have been imported from Africa over the years, and have been combined to create new morphs. Breeders have now managed to combine as many as five morphs into one snake, creating some truly outrageous patterns and colors. Today, there are thousands of different, named morphs of the Ball Python. A virtual kaleidoscope to choose from!