There are many people who find snakes interesting, fascinating, even beautiful creatures. There is likely an equal number of people who dislike or fear snakes. Which are you?
From an evolutionary point of view, we are probably genetically predisposed to fear snakes. To understand why, we have to go back the age of dinosaurs. These giant reptiles ruled the world from the Triassic period, 230 million years ago, through the Jurassic period, to the end of the Cretaceous period, about 66 million years ago - a time span of about 164 million years.
We are not sure what caused the extinction of dinosaurs, but it has been theorized that giant meteors crashing into Earth was the beginning of their end. These meteors caused gases and dust clouds to encircle the earth, blocking out much of the sun’s light and warmth. Without sunlight, many species of plants died off, and the earth’s temperature dropped. Cooler temperatures and plant shortages began dinosaurs’ decline into extinction.
Reptiles as a species did survive however, evolving into a smaller, more efficient group, better able to survive this new, harsher environment. Once class of reptiles, the Squamata, have survived to present day, and we know them as snakes and lizards. These hardier reptiles have existed for the some 60 million years. Mankind, in contrast, is a relative newcomer, having been around for only some 7 million years at most.
Herein, we find a clue as to why modern man fears snakes. Lacking limbs to immobilize their prey, many snakes developed the ability to inject venom, causing paralysis or death. Interaction between primitive man and these venomous snakes would have resulted in painful death, often accompanied by swelling or hemorrhaging. Primitive man could not know how or why this happened. In a simplistic version of Darwinian selection (survival of the fittest), we can theorize that individuals with an aversion to snakes survived to pass on this trait. Those with no fear of snakes did not survive to pass on that lack of fear. Therefore, it can be said that modern man’s fear of snakes has come about naturally, through evolution.
For example, looking into the eyes of an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake through the glass of a perfectly secure cage causes a chill to run down my spine: evidence of remnants of early DNA material still lurking in my genes.
By contrast, experience and education have taught us that many of the harmless, non-venomous snakes provide an opportunity to appreciate these beautiful, fascinating creatures. One species in particular, Python regius, commonly called the Ball Python, has become the most popular snake in captivity today. These snakes are gentle, yet robust enough to be handled and do not get very big, maturing at about three feet in length. They can be comfortably housed in a 20 gallon, long, shallow terrarium their whole lives. Because its temperament is docile, if frightened or threatened it will tuck its head into the coils of its body and roll up into a ball - which is how the name “Ball Python” came about. They rarely bite their handlers, at most feigning a harmless strike.
The Ball Python was not always as popular as it is today, however. Back in the early 1980’s, the study of reptiles and amphibians, Herpetology, was just becoming a serious endeavor. The days of roadside “tourist traps” with giant snakes and alligator wrestling were slowing fading away as a more educated public of serious hobbyists began to develop. Pet stores started exhibiting a wide variety of imported Pythons, Boa Constrictors and lizards. Unfortunately, many of these animals were sickly, due to the strain of importation to Miami in unsanitary, intemperate conditions. The Ball Pythons displayed in pet stores at that time were extremely unhealthy and rather dull in color, most with a muted brown and black pattern. They often died shortly after being purchased because their new owners could not get them to eat.
Despite their lackluster introduction to the pet trade, like many breeders, I thought Ball Pythons had particular promise. If they could be successfully bred in captivity and their offspring raised in a healthy environment, their size and temperament would make them the perfect pet snake. My first step was to learn how to keep them alive and get them healthy, so they would mature to breeding age.
I travelled to Miami to visit the importers and obtained their permission to sort through the 100’s of baby Ball Pythons in each crate, picking out the ones that appeared the healthiest and had slightly better coloring. Upon bringing them home, I treated them with an anti-parasitic, kept them in a warm, clean, dry environment and hoped they would live long enough to begin to eat, and therefore survive.
After several years, and much frustration, I finally had small colony approaching reproductive size. Males are generally ready to breed at about 18 months of age, but females do not reach maturity until their third year. Although my snakes were mature and healthy, they refused to breed. While captive breeding is often challenging, I could not pinpoint a specific problem.
In frustration, I turned to the work of some fellow Herpetologists in Texas who were attempting to reproduce the Grey Banded Kingsnake. They discovered that while the snakes they had raised in captivity would not breed, those that were collected in the wild after emerging from hibernation in the spring, would successfully breed. They concluded that a cooling down period was necessary to stimulate hormone production and induce breeding.
I decided to apply similar logic to my breeding program. The Ball Pythons that were being imported at that time were brought in from Togo and Ghana, in western central Africa. While these countries are tropical in climate, they have a cooler, drier period during their winter months. By adjusting the temperature in my snake room to approximate that of winter in Africa, I was able to induce breeding in my captive born colony in the spring of 1986. My first clutch of babies hatched that summer in July. I kept this first clutch to add to my breeding colony. To test the longevity of Ball Pythons in captivity, as well as for sentimental reasons (he was my first hatched), I kept one male long after he was no longer needed for breeding. I still have him, and he is alive and well at 27!
The mid-1980’s were a pivotal time for Ball Python breeder’s for another reason. The first dramatic color anomaly, literally a “freak of nature”, had just been captured in the wild: a bright yellow, orange and white Ball Python. It was called an Albino, although in scientific terms, this snake is not a true albino due to it’s yellow and orange coloring. It is actually amelanistic, meaning it cannot produce black pigment. This is caused by a defective gene. Without melanin, there can be no black, grey or brown, just white, yellow and orange. Because amelanism is a recessive trait, it took several generations to successfully reproduce, and the first Albino Ball Pythons were hatched in captivity in 1992.
The introduction of this exciting snake to captive breeding changed the status of the lowly brown and black Ball Python, now simply called a “normal”. Over the last several years, captive breeders have taken what was once just a few genetic anomalies from wild-caught snakes and developed a stunning array of morphs, creating almost every color and pattern imaginable!