The Incorrigible Snake Mite – January 2014

By Nicole Smith

What is a mite?

(Ophionyssus natricis) or “the snake mite” , are tiny arthropods that feed primarily  on the blood of living snakes but can also feed on certain lizard species as well. There are over 250 different species of mites that have been reported in reptiles, the most common being Ophionyssus natricis (karingavet.com.au).  The life cycle of the snake mite consists of five stages, egg, larva, protonymph, deutonymph, and adult. The complete lifecycle can be achieved in 13 to 19 days at temperatures between 77 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit. A female mite can lay a couple dozen eggs at a time and lay up to 60 to 80 eggs during their lifespan. Eggs can hatch in one day in ideal conditions, once reaching adulthood they can live up to 40 days regardless of if they feed or not!

Where do they come from?

A female mite will travel far to look for the perfect place to lay her eggs. At a temperature of around 86 degrees Fahrenheit, a female mite can travel at speeds of up to eight to eleven inches per minute or fifty five feet per hour! Mites can be transferred on cage equipment, furnishings, and clothes, so taking the right precautions, like using Provent a Mite on new cage furnishings, helps if you don’t want to deal with these pesky little parasites. The severity of an infestation is very dependent on the environment in which your animal lives in.

The small black specks are snake mites – they can be very small! 

Snake mites thrive in high temperatures and humidity, making them awfully hard to get rid of without harming your reptile, as high temperatures and humidity are often what our pets need to thrive as well. Snake mites can drown easily in water but they will still flourish in tropical environments over any other. Reptile species like Green Tree Pythons and other tropical species are perfect contenders for an infestation, although any species of snake is susceptible. Snake mites prefer dark areas over bright ones and over-lapping scales like most boas and pythons have so they can easily hold on between the pieces of skin. 

How can you tell when your reptile has mites and how do you get rid of them?

Signs that your reptile may have mites would include things such as refusing to eat, depression, excessive soaking in their water bowls, or dull looking, raised scales. Mites are also visible and will look like little black moving pieces of pepper or poppy seeds as adults. Depending on your pet, there are numerous methods to use to rid them of mites. The size and health of the animal are both important to take into consideration when deciding on which method is right for you.

You can see mites in the chin scales of this ball python.

The most effective treatment for animals of an appropriate size, is using Reptile Relief by Natural Chemistry (to treat the animal), in combination with Provent A Mite (to treat the enclosure).  Start by placing your animal in a secure plastic container (with airholes of course). Lightly spray the animal from head to tail, covering the entire body in a small amount of the mite treatment. Allow your reptile to sit for 15-20 minutes while the mites die off (for smaller animals, spraying a q-tip with Reptile Relief, wiping the animal down, then rinsing off with lukewarm water will help get rid of the mites).

After the allotted time, soak your animal in clean water (just enough to go halfway up your pets’ sides – you don’t want them to drown on accident!)  for another 15-20 minutes. The soaking process will help prevent any dehydrating since the Reptile Relief works by drying out the mites to kill them off. Next you will need to treat the enclosure by completely replacing all substrate and soaking all cage décor in a 10% bleach and water solution. Make sure all décor is completely submerged as the mites can climb out of the container to avoid drowning.

A few snake mites can be seen around the eyes of this ball python.

Next, move the enclosure into an open area (usually outside is best), and clean the enclosure with an animal safe cleanser such as Healthy Habitat by Natural Chemistry, covering every inch of the cage from top to bottom. Then, you can replace the substrate (or use newspaper or paper towels if the infestation is really bad) and all cage decor EXCEPT for the water dish. Spray the entire contents of the cage with Provent A Mite at a rate of about one second per square foot. Cover up the cage so that the fog sinks into the substrate for about 10 to 15 minutes, which will kill any live mites remaining in the enclosure, and allow the Provent A Mite to soak into the cage, killing any more mites that hatch out. Allow the enclosure to air out for about 20 minutes before adding the animal and water dish. Make sure to check that the cage is fully aired out and no longer smells of Provent A Mite before adding the water bowl and animal back to the cage – putting your snake in too soon can poison your snake! The entire process should take a little over an hour and can save your animal from health issues. Re-treating your animal should be done once a week for at least 2 to 3 weeks to ensure that any mites hatching from eggs are killed off, preventing re-infestation.  To prevent future outbreaks, treating the substrate every time you replace can help ensure you never have an infestation again!

References:

http://www.karingalvet.com.au/Pet-Care/Reptiles-and-Amphibians/Reptile-Mites.asp

http://vpi.com/publications/the_life_history_of_snake_mites

http://lllreptile.com/info/library/care-and-husbandry-articles/-/dealing-with-snake-mites/

Understanding Reptile Vision, Part 1: Understanding Sight – October 2013

By Jennifer Greene

Hopefully, you have at least a basic understanding of how sight works.  In case you don’t, simply speaking the way humans perceive the world is through reflected light on objects around us.  For the majority of vertebrates, this is how sight works.  Light from the sun, a light bulb, moonlight, etc is reflected off of objects around us, and our eyes take in that light and send signals up to our brain indicating what it is we’ve seen. There’s different wavelengths of light – which most of you already know.  There’s visible light, which is the colors we see as humans, and then there’s wavelengths like UVA, UVB, UVC, and so on.  There’s also infrared light – which is, essentially, the same as heat.

Infrared, visible light, the UVB spectrum, these are a small portion of the BIG range of wavelengths that the sun and various light/energy sources can emit.  As far as we’re concerned, though, those are the relevant wavelengths for us to pay attention to.

The cells that send the signals up to our brain each fire when they encounter the type of light they’re designed to perceive, so your sight is only as good as the number of cells in your eyes.  And from there, your sight is only as good as the number of cells designed to pick up the various types of light out there.

The common way for vertebrates to see is through the use of two types of sight cells – rods and cones.  Rods simply pick up light, period, and fire when visible light hits them.  Cones pick up different colors of light, and there are various types of cones for the various colors or wavelengths of visible light out there.  In low light situations, rods work best, as they will just fire if there is light – so all of your rod cells are going to work to detect light when there isn’t much there.  Cone cells only fire when they are triggered by the specific type of light they’re designed to pick up – so they are not as effective as rod cells in low light, as there is often not enough reflected light of a specific color to make them fire.

This is extremely simplified; vision and lighting are complicated topics, and if you’d like to research it more, I highly recommend it.

As a result of the way the cells work, it is common and expected for most nocturnal species to have large numbers of rod cells in their eyes, allowing them to pick up even tiny amounts of reflected light at night and giving them excellent night vision.  Some owls, for example, have night vision up to 100 times better than what we can see – and this is due to the large number of rods in their eyes.

When it comes to daytime vision and cone cells, though, that’s where sight can get really interesting.  Different animal groups have different types of cones, and the way the cones work can vary immensely from animal type to animal type.

In mammals, it is common for them to only have 2 types of cones.  They are usually blind to the difference between the colors of red and green, a color range humans can detect because we have 3 types of cones.  Human color detection is better than most mammals, but it can only be called “better” in that range of comparison.  When you start to look at other vertebrates, the limits of our own sight become much more obvious.

Birds and many tropical fish can see into the Ultraviolet, or UV range, giving them the ability to perceive colors we can’t even comprehend.  Can you imagine a new color that has never existed before?  That’s a color that birds and many fish see all the time!

In that same group of exceptional sight, many reptiles have at least 4 types of cone cells, with some having 5.  This means they can perceive color even better than we can in most cases, and for species with the best color perception, they can see a range of colors that even birds and fish can’t.

This is definitely a generalization, and is not meant to imply that reptiles can all see with clarity and distance that we can – but they can perceive a wider range of colors than our senses can, and this should be considered when maintaining captive collections.

Obviously, not all reptiles require full spectrum lighting, or even much in the way of specialized lighting.  Commercialized breeding of several species has shown that specialized lighting is not necessary for the maintenance of some species, and this video and article series is not intended to dispute that.  Rather, this is a look at how reptiles perceive their world, and how we as keepers can better modify our lighting and cage setup to reflect the natural conditions our reptiles are likely to experience.  For the single pet reptile or for dedicated enthusiasts determined to closely replicate nature as best they’re able, information on reptile sight is just one aspect of husbandry to consider.

Is My Reptile Warm Enough? August 2013

By Jonathan Rheins

In the world of pets, reptiles are very different from your everyday cat or dog. Your furry pets have the ability, like us, to regulate our body temperature internally, and keep it a constant and healthy level. Reptiles of course don’t have this ability. They are often referred to as cold-blooded, a term that is both inaccurate and rather unacceptable. The aforementioned term tends to spark negative connotations regarding these animals, as “cold-blooded” is so often associated with cruelty or evil.

The trend now in scientific literature is to identify these animals as what they truly are, which is poikilothermic ectotherms. These words are often used to describe reptiles interchangeably, although their exact definitions do differ slightly. Poikilothermic literally translates from Greek to mean “variable temperature.” In other words, poikilotherms are any animals that have a variable body temperature. Although a healthy human may have a body temperature of 98.6 plus or minus a few tenths of a degree, we are not considered poikilotherms. Rather poikilotherms are animals that not only have an inconsistent body temperature, but also one capable of massive highs and lows without harming the organism.
A basking Blue Tongue Skink

Now that we understand that aspect of reptilian physiology it is somewhat easier to understand the vital importance of providing captive reptiles with an acceptable range of environmental temperatures. The key word in the above phrase is “range.” Maintaining any reptile or amphibian at a constant temperature is neither healthy or natural. Instead we should strive to provide a thermal range, or gradient, for our pets so that they may choose the correct temperature for their specific needs at any given time. In the wild, reptiles are constantly moving around searching for microclimates within their environment that meet their needs. Aquatic turtles are a good example. On a sunny day, a turtle may haul itself onto a warm rock or log, and when it reaches its preferred body temperature, slips back into the water to cool down. A given animal may go through this series of behaviors literally dozens of times a day. Although I used turtles in my example, the same holds true for snakes, lizards, and amphibians (although to a lesser degree).

For any given species, a little research should quickly yield a set of vital temperatures that you should learn and love. One of these is the ambient temperature required by your species. This is essentially the background temperature, and additionally functions as the cooler temperature that you will eventually use in creating your gradient. The other temperature typically given is that of the basking spot. This is the temperature you want to achieve in the warmest spot in the cage. The basking temperature is usually limited to one or two local areas within the enclosure where the reptile can bask as needed to raise its body temperature.

As an example lets look at a popular species, the bearded dragon, Pogona vitticeps. Individual sources will vary, and the age of your pet and size of enclosure ultimately come into play when developing a proper gradient. Nonetheless, lets assume that beardeds require an ambient temperature of 78-82 degrees with a basking spot of approximately 110 degrees. This can simply be interpreted as: make cage 80 degrees with a localized basking spot of 110. The concept is fairly simple when you break it down.

Understanding the physiology and mechanisms behind reptilian thermoregulatory behavior is a large part of the battle. We are fortunate to live in a time where reptile keeping has become mainstream enough to allow the average consumer access to a wide variety of reptile care supplies. Therefore, the educated hobbyist can easily find and purchase any number of heating devices designed specifically for reptile use with which to provide a proper thermal gradient for their pets.

Reptiles like this Panther Chameleon cannot thrive without the proper temperatures.

The first and perhaps most important tool you can have when keeping reptiles is a high quality thermometer. Standard adhesive strip thermometers are very reasonably priced, and can provide the keeper with ambient temperature information at a glance. Analog thermometers are another option. Though slightly more expensive, the cost is offset by increased accuracy and precision, as well as the ability to move the device throughout the cage.

I typically recommend at least two thermometers per cage, or one easily movable one. One thermometer should be placed in the warmest spot in the enclosure (the basking spot).

This thermometer should allow the keeper to ensure that the basking spot does not exceed the safe level for the species being kept. The second thermometer should be placed away from the basking zone, typically on the far end of the cage. Utilizing this arrangement of one thermometer at both the hottest and coolest parts of the cage makes monitoring the gradient simple, and adjustment easy.

When designing your reptiles enclosure, keep the concept of the thermal gradient in mind. Placing the basking spot in the center of your cage will likely result in the entire cage remaining too warm. Instead, aim to have one side of the cage warm, and the other cooler. If you set up your enclosure this way, and have a properly temped basking spot, you will automatically have a gradient. The further away from the heat source that the animal travels, the cooler it will become. In very large or elaborate set-ups it may become necessary to have multiple basking spots. This is perfectly acceptable so long as cooler zones within the enclosure are still provided.

Using heat lights can encourage perching reptiles, like this Green Tree Python, to bask where you can see them.

There is a huge variety of heating bulbs, elements, pads, panels, and rocks available for keeping your pets warm. Heat bulbs, ceramic heat emitters, and heating pads are by far the most popular, so they will each be discussed briefly in turn, as a working knowledge of these items will help you choose the appropriate equipment for your specific situation.

Bulbs are the most popular method, and different types exist to serve specific purposes. Somereptile bulbs emit heat in a wide wash of light, similar to a standard household bulb. Other so-called “spot” bulbs are designed to focus the heat and light onto a smaller more concentrated area. Additionally, both spot and flood-type bulbs are available in red, effectively creating an infra-red heating device. The light emitted by these bulbs looks red to us, while it is likely that your reptiles do not see any light at all. The main advantage to red bulbs is that they can remain on at night without disrupting the animals natural day/night cycle (assuming supplemental lighting is used during normal daylight hours).

Ceramic heat emitters are yet another option for heating reptiles from above. Similar in form and function to a light bulb, these devices are essentially a solid ceramic heat element available in a variety of wattages to fit any need, They screw into any standard porcelain light fixture and produce an intense amount of heat compared to bulbs of similar wattage. Among the advantages of ceramic heat emitters is the total absence of light that they produce and their longevity. Properly used elements should easily last 5 to 7 years without problems.

A happily basking Texas Map Turtle

Heat pads are a common tool for snake owners due to the terrestrial habits of many snake species. Heat pads are usually, but not always, self adhesive and attach to the outside bottom of any glass terrarium. Individual models will vary, but on average you can expect the substrate temperature above the pad to be about 10 degrees above room temperature. In some situations a heat pad alone provides adequate heat, however do not be discouraged if you end up using both a pad and a light or ceramic element to properly warm your enclosure.

There is one more vital piece of advice that I would like to share with you. Having kept a wide variety of reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates myself over the years, I have adopted a unique and reliable philosophy regarding reptile behavior. As I said earlier, having an accurate thermometer in your cage is very, very important as it is very difficult for us as humans to detect slight temperature variations. Yet in my opinion, the most accurate thermometer that you have at your disposal is the animal itself.

Just as no two humans are exactly alike, nor are any two reptiles. Due to the uniqueness of each animal, carefully observing your pets is the best way to see if they are happy. Yes, within a given species of animal the needs will be quite similar, and as such are generalized accurately in care books. Nonetheless, individual variances do occur, and you should be open to making changes accordingly.

If your reptile is always in its basking spot, day and night, and never budges, chances are that it is too cold in the enclosure, and your pet is trying desperately to warm up. On the other end of the spectrum, there is the hypothetical situation where your reptile spends all day trying to claw through the glass on the cooler end of the tank, almost as if it were being chased. This would be indicative of temperatures that are too hot.

Some reptiles, like this Pygmy Leaf Chameleon, don’t actually like high temperatures in their cage.

Keep in mind that these behaviors may be part of your pets normal activity if it happens only occasionally. You needn?t worry until the above mentioned scenarios become chronic, or are accompanied by anorexia or other signs of illness.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to share with you my thoughts and opinions in regards to keeping your reptiles warm and happy this winter. Please keep in mind that animals are unpredictable, and when dealing with them nothing is written in stone. We are all still in a learning stage when it comes to perfecting reptile-keeping and we all need to work together to allow our hobby to progress. All of the above is based on my personal experience and opinions, and is in no way intended to be the last word on the subject. If you ever find yourself in doubt about your animals health or well being, feel free to contact us or your local expert.

Dangerous Beauties: Rattlesnake Season in Southern California – June 2013

by Kyle Morales

It’s Spring in Southern California! This means allergy season, tax season, and generally warmer weather. With this increase in temperature comes an increase in activity from SoCals native wildlife. One type of animal that Socal residents need to keep an eye out for is the varied species of rattlesnake that will start to reappear as temperatures begin to rise. The most common rattlesnake species that Southern California residents may come in contact with include the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox), the Red Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus ruber), and especially the Southern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus helleri).

A mid sized Southern Pacific rattlesnake

Rattlesnakes are most commonly found in deserts and around rocky areas. They are crepuscular, meaning they are mostly active around the early morning hours and during the night. Identifying rattlesnakes is easy enough due to their tell-tale rattle. However, babies may be too young to have developed a rattle and adults have often broken them off, so keep this in mind. The most reliable way to identify rattlesnake is to look at their body structure. Rattlers will have a triangular head that is bigger than their necks. They have thick bodies that are dull in color and not glossy like that of its nonvenomous, and similar looking neighbor, the gopher snake.

A baby Southern Pacific in a staff member’s yard.

If you come into contact with a rattler the best thing to remember is to stay calm. Any species of snake will be more afraid of you than you are of it, and will not willingly try to bite you unless it feels threatened. Rattlesnakes will also warn you through their rattle. The only time where a bite may occur is if you startle a snake suddenly and it is within a close enough distance to bite you. Generally, rattlesnakes can be easy going animals that do not want to bite, instead preferring to stay hidden or get away from you. If you come into contact with a rattlesnake while hiking or doing any outdoor activity simply leave it alone. If you come across one in your backyard or home, again leave it alone. No matter how quick you think you are and how slow you think the snake is you do not want to risk getting bitten. Rattlesnakes can strike in the blink of an eye, much faster than you can move out of the way. There are many organizations that will be glad to assist you should you come across any type of wildlife. One such organization that removes animals free of charge is Project Wildlife ((619) 225-9453). They will come to your location and safely remove animals and relocate them. Often, people will call local police and fire stations. While you may get a quick response from these organizations you will also get individuals who are not trained to deal with a quick, venomous rattler – it is best to leave their removal to professionals.

Overall, rattlesnakes are beautiful animals that are an important part of the local ecosystem. These shy reptiles deserve much respect and space and are best left alone.

Again, do not try to move an animal yourself. Contact a trained specialist who will be more than happy to remove the animal. Again, these animals deserve lots of space and respect, give it to them.

Amazon Tree Boas: Keeping Rainforest Jewels In Your Home – May 2013

By Jennifer Greene

Every reptile keeper has a different animal that first attracted them not just to reptile keeping, but to going above and beyond that first snake, lizard, or pet that they kept in the beginning.  For some, it’s breeding fancy colored morphs.  For others, it’s keeping a species they initially thought too difficult for their experience level, or a type of animal that is completely different than the one they started out keeping.  For me, I spent nearly a decade admiring the beauty of arboreal snake species such as Green Tree Pythons and Amazon Tree Boas, but never felt that I had enough experience to maintain them successfully in captivity.  After working here at LLLReptile for several years, I finally took the big step and acquired a couple exceptional animals from my good friend, Danny Mendez.  Very quickly, I felt very silly for not trying to keep them sooner, because they’re not nearly as difficult as I’d always believed.  It’s my hope that more keepers will branch out from the easy ground dwelling species and try their hand, as I did, at keeping a fascinating, beautiful snake species.

One of the first issues to tackle that always made me hesitate when it came to keeping Amazons was my belief that they needed constant high humidity, in a range of 80% or more.  This is not quite the truth.  They do require humidity, yes, but they do not require constant sky high levels nor do they require constant hovering and attention to moisture within their cage.  Personally, I have found it to be almost deceptively easy to keep and maintain my Amazons by housing them in a living vivarium, full of live plants.  I raised my amazons from young ages in planted vivariums, and experienced little to no difficulty in maintaining acceptable levels of humidity for my boas.  I highly recommend creating a suitably sized vivarium for your boas before you bring them home.  Many keepers do not house their Amazons in planted cages, but as I have experienced such easy success with mine (and those at the stores) by utilizing vivariums, this article will describe the care for amazons utilizing those conditions.

Babies can be housed individually in 12 x 12 x 18 front opening terrariums.  When I built my vivariums, I used small ficus trees as the live plants, and included a couple smaller plants such as earth stars and tillandsias.  For babies, usingsmall pieces of manzanita branches crossed throughout the cage will provide them with suitable perches.

For best viewing of your boa(s), set up perches in such a way that they can rest several parts of their body on their branches, and simply have that arrangement right in the front of the cage! I highly recommend including a layer of moss, eithergreen sphagnum or New Zealand Sphagnum moss working well in this situation.

Keep that layer of moss nice and damp, and if your boas feel the need for higher humidity than the cage currently offers, they will readily rest on the bottom of the cage.  It is not a cause for alarm if your boa routinely spends time at the bottom of the cage; this species in particular will readily hang out at the bottom of the cage, seemingly for no reason at all.

A single small adult can be housed in an 18 x 18 x 24” front opening terrarium, although large (over 5’) individuals should be provided with a larger enclosure.  As most adult Amazon Tree Boas will reach at least that length, be prepared to purchase or make a larger cage than the bare minimum.  A pair should be housed in a cage no smaller than 36” wide by 18” deep by 24” tall.  Once the lights turn off, these snakes become much, much more active than they seem by day, and providing them with room to explore and hunt helps to maintain your snakes with good body condition.

Amazons are meant to be slender bodied, muscular snakes, and providing them with space to exercise and perch within their cages affords them the ability to exercise on their own terms.

So by now, you’ve set up your beautiful, lush vivarium with various live plants, branches for your snake to climb on, and a layer of moss covering the bottom.  There’s more to it than that! You’ll also need to light and heat your enclosure.   I prefer to use a 2.0 UVB compact fluorescent for basic lighting in my cages, as these bulbs are nice and bright and display both the animals and the plants beautifully.  I set my lights on timers, and depending on the time of year my lights are on for 12 to 14 hours a day.  In addition to a fluorescent bulb for lighting the cage and providing light for plant growth, I also use a basking bulb for my snakes to bask as needed.  In the smaller 12 x 12 x 18 size terrarium, you should not need a bulb any hotter than 50 watts in winter, and 25 watts in summer.  Basking temperatures 3 to 6 inches below the bulb should be about 85 degrees at most; spikes close to 90 degrees can be tolerated, but temperatures that high often dry out your cage(s) unnecessarily.  In the larger cages, 50 to 75 watt bulbs should be adequate depending on time of year and ambient temperatures in your home.

At night, temperatures can dip into the mid to upper 70’s, with the coolest parts of the cage ranging down into the high 60s during winter (Danny Mendez, pers comm).  Personally, I would recommend the use of a heat pad for keeping temperatures at acceptable levels during nighttime, as continual use of a heat bulb can dry out the air and make it difficult for you to maintain humidity at acceptable levels for your snake.  A heat pad for night time should provide enough heat for your boas to stay healthy, and help keep your electricity bill down!  If you’d like to be able to see your snakes at night, I highly recommend using a black light bulb for viewing – it emits only low amounts of heat and a purple light that will not affect your snake’s nocturnal behavior.

The vivarium for Jen’s Amazon Tree Boas

In addition, a popular method of heating humidity loving species such as Amazon Tree Boas is to utilize radiant heat panels.  These do not heat up the air, nor does the heat panel’s surface actually become warm; they just heat up surfaces underneath them utilizing infrared radiation.

Feeding your Amazons should not be too difficult, at least not if they’ve settled in and acclimated to your cage.  When you first get your new boa, give it at least 5 days to settle in before attempting to feed it for the first time.  Amazon Tree Boas are slender bodied, arboreal snakes, and should not be fed anything much larger than their body width.  You should see only a very slight bulge in your snake’s stomach after it eats; too large of a prey item and you risk regurgitation and the problems that go along with it.  Babies and juveniles up to 2 years of age can be fed every 7 days, while older animals can go 10 to 14 days between feedings.  Again, keep in mind that these are an arboreal species – they are meant to be slender bodied, not chubby little sausages like other pet snake species!  I highly recommend purchasing a pair oftweezers or hemostats for offering food to your snake.  Babies often begin feeding easiest when offered live prey, but once they are feeding consistently in your care you should experience little to no difficulty switching them to frozen/thawed feeders.  Tweezers are a must for offering frozen/thawed prey items, and they make offering live prey significantly easier as well.

Handling an Amazon Tree Boa is the type of endeavor that usually makes experienced keepers chuckle and wince at the same time.  They are notorious for poor attitudes and a penchant for biting anything and everything even slightly warm in their vicinity once they’ve been disturbed.  For many amazon tree boas, this is certainly the case, and whenever you encounter a strange boa, it is best to assume it’s going to try and bite you.  Even with your own boas that you know well, it’s typically safe to assume they’re going to try and bite you.  For this reason, Amazon Tree Boas do best as display-only pets, because even if you don’t mind being bitten, the act of biting you can have problems for your boa.  Biting you can dislodge their teeth, leading to potential mouth infections, and it’s stressful for your boa to be in a situation where it feels threatened enough to try biting you.  For these reasons it’s best to avoid handling your amazon tree boas unless you absolutely have to.

This is why.

In addition to the grey coloration most commonly available, Amazon Tree Boas come in a range of colors that rival a rainbow.  They also have a handful of genetically inherited pattern mutations, which in combination with the beautiful colors they naturally come with, can create some truly spectacular “designer” morphs.  Selective breeding has also taken many of the colors found in wild specimens and intensified them, resulting in snakes so brightly colored they look unreal.

Depending on what you want out of your display, you can go with a grey or a colored amazon, and for the most eye catching animals, it is often worth it to go to a private breeder and purchase a line bred animal.  Amazon Tree Boas change color as they mature, with patternless or uniquely patterned juveniles often developing different colors as they grow.

If you are looking for a beautiful reptile to keep and display in your home or office, I highly recommend Amazon Tree Boas.  Their lower price tag keeps them in reach for keepers not quite ready to spend several hundred dollars on a pricey green tree python or emerald tree boa, and they come in a much wider range of colors than a simple green snake.  Amazon Tree Boas have tons of attitude and spunk, coupled with a beautiful range of colors and patterns that make no two snakes alike.  This individuality and uniqueness makes them extremely enjoyable captives, and I highly recommend them to the snake keeper looking to make the next step into keeping something more interesting and involved than your average ball python or cornsnake!

Jen’s Amazon Tree Boas

The Humble House Snake – April 2013

By Jennifer Greene

An extremely underrated but fantastic pet snake to keep is the African House Snake.  There are several different species referred to as House Snakes that originate from Africa, with the most common in the US pet trade being Lamprophis fuliginosus..  As I said, there are numerous species which all can be called House Snakes, but my article will focus on the care for the most commonly available species, also referred to as the Brown House Snake.

This House Snake is comfortable in her owner’s hands

The Brown House Snake is a bit of a misnomer in that this highly variable snake can range in coloration from a dark brown, almost black color, to a golden brown and a wide selection of colors in-between.  Some of the more attractively colored varieties have red tones to them, and selective breeding has resulted in some extremely high red individuals.  All house snakes have a gorgeous iridescence to their scales, comparable to that of rainbow boas and sunbeam snakes.

Most also have a pale tan or gold stripe running along their eyes, which may or may not extend down the length of the body.  Due to the range of colors, it is extremely easy to selectively breed animals to create your own lines of attractive, captive bred house snakes.  In addition, albino snakes are available from time to time, and this one simple mutation combined with the multitude of naturally occurring variance in the species holds great promise for morphs in the future.

If you couldn’t guess from the name, African House Snakes originate from the continent of Africa.  They are one of the most widespread species of snakes found there, and range across the entire continent below the Saharan Desert.  Their common name comes from their habit of hanging around human dwellings, where they aid in rodent control.  Extremely adaptable, they are found in nearly every type of habitat in Africa, only eschewing outright desert areas.

This natural sturdiness is part of what makes them excellent beginner snakes, as they thrive in a wide range of conditions and will withstand nearly any mistake a beginner is likely to make.

House snakes do not get very large; while some females can reach lengths as great as 5 feet, it is much more common for them to remain under 4 feet as adults.  Males mature much smaller than females, often 2 – 2.5 feet in length, meaning that when you have mature, breeding adults they are clearly sexually dimorphic in size.

Fortunately, even large females remain slender, never needing feeders larger than an adult mouse.  House snakes are voracious feeders, and care must be taken to ensure your snake does not become too fat.

I have never seen a house snake turn down a meal, not even babies!  They will eat daily if you offer them food, but they do not need to eat any more often than every 5 to 7 days.  Don’t let those eager little faces fool you – these little piglets of snakes don’t need more food!

Due to their extreme sturdiness, they are among the easiest of species to keep.  Adults rarely need a cage larger than a Vision cage model V211, although a 20 gallon long (30” x 12” x 12”) is also a suitable size enclosure for most adults.

Babies can be kept in smaller enclosures, such as a 10 gallon tank or 12” x 12” x 12” front-opening terrarium. Setting up the enclosure is simple, and can be as plain or elaborate as you desire.  I prefer to use orchid bark as the substrate, as with occasional misting it holds enough water to allow for perfect, full sheds.  While House Snakes do not necessarily require excessive care taken with humidity, when they are entering a shed cycle it can be beneficial to provide them with a humid hide or to mist the enclosure daily until they have shed.  While they are not prone to respiratory infections at extremely low humidity levels (like some tropical species) they do seem to require an extra bump of humidity while preparing to shed.  Other acceptable substrates include shredded aspencypress mulch, and sani chips – all of which we have used here at LLL with success.  House Snakes are extremely adaptable, so as long as you can provide that humid hiding spot during shed cycles, use whichever bedding you like best!

Temperature requirements for the African House Snake are nothing extraordinary; simply provide them with a warm side or basking area of about 90 degrees, and a cool side of 80 degrees or lower.  Depending on your setup, you can utilize either a heat pad or a basking light to provide your snake with its preferred warm side temperature.  When using a basking light, I recommend either using a red bulb (which can be left on all the time) or a red bulb at night in combination with a daylight blue or basking bulb during the day.  For the best looking display, I highly recommend using a bulb during the day that produces a white light (such as the daylight or basking bulbs) to best view your snake.  Adding a 5.0 compact fluorescent is not necessary for your snake to grow and thrive, but it does highlight the beautiful rainbow iridescence of their scales when you display them in a nicely set up cage.  Make sure that at night, your snake has an alternate source of heat beyond the white light producing bulbs; they do best when provided with a dark period of time to sleep in.

Setting up the décor in the cage is a matter of personal preference.  Your House Snake needs at least 2 hiding places: one at the warm side and one at the cool side.  Brancheslogscork flatscork rounds, and bamboo hollows all make excellent climbing and hiding options for your snake.  You can also add fake caves or natural looking rock outcrops for a naturalistic appearance, but the plain and simple Black Hide Boxes work just as well.  I prefer to include foliage in the form of fake plants as well as a variety of branches and wood for the snakes to climb on for exercise.  Having a terrarium full of branches and decorations is not only aesthetically pleasing to us as keepers, but highly beneficial for the snake as well, providing cover and hiding places as well as exercise as they cruise through their cage.

Now that you have your snake all set up and a feeding schedule prepared, you get to enjoy the pleasure of handling and interacting with your pet!  While their feeding response can be quite strong (so make sure to wash your hands before picking yours up!), once they realize there isn’t anything edible to be had they are extremely mellow and laid back snakes.  They will leisurely cruise around when being handled, and often curl up around a wrist or neck to hang out and relax.  In my experience, they almost seem to enjoy regular interaction, thriving even when handled daily.

Not only are they a pleasure to handle, but they are extremely inquisitive and nosy, coming out to see what is happening around them when there are people in the room their cage is in.

With their extreme ease of care, solid and easy to engage feeding response, and entertaining personalities, I highly recommend African House Snakes as a great first pet snake.

They’re off the beaten path, and not nearly as common as Kingsnakes or Cornsnakes as pets, but that’s no reason for you to avoid keeping them yourself!

It is worth waiting for them to become available to get your hands on these cute little snakes, as they are not as consistently available as the other commonly kept pet snake species.  I hope reading this article has helped you to decide to try something other than the average pet snake, and to go out and find yourself an awesome little House Snake to keep as a pet!

Can Snakes Hear? Sound Detection in Serpents – August 2013

by Jennifer Greene 
All photos by author unless otherwise noted

Can Snakes Hear?

If you keep one snake or one hundred snakes, chances are you have some opinion on whether or not your scaly friends can hear you.  Some keepers are aware that studies have shown that snakes can most certainly detect vibrations in the ground, helping them determine if there is prey or a potential predator nearby.  Snakes lack an outer ear, leading some to believe that snakes are completely deaf to airborne sounds.   While the lack of a visible external ear likely limits the snake’s ability to hear airborne sounds, they do have a system of hearing that includes an inner ear.  Their hearing system is, in its own way, both simpler and more complex than our own, and by no means is it out of the question that a snake can hear airborne sounds.   Mostreptile keepers have their own opinions and knowledge of the seeming simplicity of a snake’s hearing abilities, but the reality of their sense of hearing is that it involves a wider range of the sense than our own.  They may not be able to hear the range of audible frequencies that we can, but they can sense sound in a way that is alien to us.

Anecdotally, it is not difficult to find keepers that swear their snakes can hear them.  Walking through a reptile show and asking various reptile enthusiasts if their snakes can hear them will give you the full gamut of stories about the phenomenon.  You will hear everything from someone assuring you their snake knows its name and comes when it’s called to others, assuredly too professional and experienced for such nonsense, confidently assuring you that snakes are deaf and cannot hear a word you’re saying.

Studying snake hearing and being able to provide definitive proof one way or the other ultimately requires more than the average keeper’s call for supper or similar, haphazard and informal tests.  Older experimental methods tracked electrical activity in the brains of snakes in several families when sounds at various frequencies were played; a more recent (and less invasive) study looked at the reactions of one rattlesnake species to sounds played at various levels.  Interestingly, the older experiments show that snakes have two sensory systems that detect both sound and vibration, and note that while each system detects primarily one or the other, the range for each overlaps (Hartline 1970).

Before moving forward, a quick overview of sound and hearing may help you, the reader, to better understand how snakes are capable of hearing even without an external ear, and why it is relevant that a snake’s hearing includes both airborne sound and vibrations.  First, let’s look at sound:  sound is a pressure wave through a medium, caused by vibrations.  Everything vibrates slightly at a molecular level, however, those tiny vibrations are usually too quiet for us to hear.  What we usually perceive as sound to our ears is a sound wave within a certain frequency – a vibration happening at a certain speed through the air.

Human ears perceive sound within a specific range based on what the bones in our ears can pick up and then translate to vibrations within the deepest part of our inner ear.  The cochlea is the spiral tube within our ear, and the microscopic hairs within the cochlea pick up specific frequencies of sound – each hair correlating to a different frequency.  All of that translates to our ability to hear a wide range of audible sound, typically 20 to 20,000 hertz (the measurement of the specific frequency of a sound wave).  Snakes hear not just what we consider audible sound; their entire body acts as an organ to pick up vibrations – and their brain processes these vibrations in a similar part as audible sound, creating a sense of hearing considerably different than what we experience as mammals. (Hartline, 1970) It is not as wide as our own, but it is experienced in a much, much different way.

Continuing, if airborne sound such as speech is nothing more than vibrations in the air, it stands to reason that snakes may actually be able to hear it.  In fact, experiments show that snakes are capable of hearing airborne sound within the mid to lower ranges of normal human speech.  (Hartline 1970) While snakes are much more limited than humans and other mammals in their range of perceivable sound, they are capable of hearing sounds in the ranges of 150 Hz to 600 Hz. (Hartline 1970)

Human speech falls almost exactly within that range, even with wide variance in frequency due to age and/or gender.   Baby cries can be up to 500 Hz, while children’s voices are anywhere from 250 to 400 Hz, and men and women ranging from 125 to 200 Hz on average, respectively.  (www.ncvs.org)

With snakes having this almost alien method of picking up sound, and both of their sound detection systems overlapping in terms of detecting both airborne and physical vibrations, it makes it hard to conduct experiments to determine if snakes are not just perceiving airborne sounds but also capable of understanding and reacting to them.  A recent study has found that snakes can perceive and react to airborne sound by using a soundproof enclosure and a specially designed hanging basket to minimize vibrations from the surface.  Using the notoriously cranky Western Diamondback Rattlesnake as the test subjects, the experimenters found that 92% of the time, the snakes reacted in one or more ways to airborne sounds.  (Young and Aguiar, 2002)  Their testing methods were not able to determine if the snakes could identify the direction of the sound, but did conclusively show a reaction to purely airborne sounds.  Another study compliments this information with the observation that another crotalid species, the Saharan Sand Viper, utilizes its sense of vibration to determine the direction of an object that is causing sound, providing “evidence that snakes are capable of hearing, albeit, perhaps, in a unique sense of that term.” (Young and Morain, 2001)

All of this information culminates in the conclusive statement that YES, snakes can in fact hear airborne sounds in addition to sensing vibrations in solid objects.  Their sense of hearing, while limited in frequency, does encompass a wider range of potential stimuli to help a snake understand what is going on in its environment.  While they are not quite adapted to understand speech, the ringing of a dinnerbell, or similar acoustic triggers, they are capable of hearing that these things are taking place.  When considering if a snake’s lack of understanding that you are speaking to it makes it lacking in intelligence, do also consider that there is no reason for a snake to understand human speech.  Everything in its sensory arsenal is to identify what is happening around it, and help it to determine if there is prey, predator, or something to ignore happening around it.  A snake lives a much simpler life than the average mammal, and what they do with their complex array of senses reflects this.  Just because a snake doesn’t react to you talking doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t hear you; chances are, it just wasn’t something the snake considered worth reacting to.

Sources/Works Cited

Young, B.A. , Aguiar, A. (June 27th, 2002) Response of western diamond back rattlesnakesCrotalus atrox to airborne sounds
The Journal of Experimental Biology, 205, 3087 – 3092

Young, B.A., Morain, M. (December 10th, 2001) The use of ground-borne vibrations for prey localization in the Saharan sand viper (Cerastes)
The Journal of Experimental Biology, 205, 661-665

Hartline, P.H. (August 18th, 1970) Physiological Basis for Detection of Sound and Vibration in Snakes
The Journal of Experimental Biology, 54, 349-371

Factors Influencing Fundamental Frequency, retrieved July 18th, 2013 fromhttp://www.ncvs.org/ncvs/tutorials/voiceprod/tutorial/influence.html

The Language of Love: Breeding Behavior in Reptiles and Amphibians – April 2013

By Erin Lane

Part III: Visual Virtuosos

It is finally that time of year—the days are getting longer, the weather is milder, and your herps are just starting to wake up from brumation.  Spring is in the air, and reptiles and amphibians are responding accordingly.  This is perhaps the most exciting time for reptile and amphibian keepers as it is when many of our pets begin to show the most interesting and diverse behaviors.  For some species, breeding season is well underway.  Over the past couple of months we have discussed how herps use auditory and chemical communication to find and attract mates.  This month we will be wrapping up our talks with perhaps the most evident form of reptile behavior—visual communication.

Visual communication is perhaps one of the most interesting forms as it takes advantage of our own primary sensory system. What makes it particularly enjoyable to watch is that it is an extremely diverse mode, which can range from push ups and head bobs to flashes of intense color.  Previously we discussed how many frogs and toads use auditory communication to attract mates, and that others take advantage of chemical cues to sniff out a good mate.  When it comes to visual communication, lizards reign supreme.

The unique eyes of a young male Jackson’s Chameleon!

The right kind of attention

The way to get attention for most lizards is to be visible to conspecifics (animals of the same species).  Unlike anurans (frogs and toads), very few lizards vocalize, and most that do typically reserve it for when they are threatened.  And, while some lizards also use chemical signals to communicate, these appear to be secondary to visual signals.  For a lizard, it’s all about the show!

Almost every reptile enthusiast can conjure a picture of a lizard doing pushups on a rock, or a bearded dragon head bobbing.  Lizard visual displays are often eye catching and rhythmic in nature.  One problem that lizards run into is one that most small animals have to worry about—when you make yourself visible, you run the risk of predation.  There is often a fine line between being visible enough to attract attention from conspecifics without drawing attention from predators.  In many cases, caution is thrown to the wind in favor of attracting a mate.

An agama in the wild displaying brilliant colors intending to attract a mate!

Peacocks are a perfect example of this phenomenon.  While these birds have been bred in captivity for centuries, their true wild form is not much different from those you might see at a park.  With their overly long tail feathers, bright colors, and larger than life display, they stand out in almost any environment.  In addition, those beautiful tails also make quick movement and flying more cumbersome.  While peafowl may be good enough at escaping a human, they are a much easier target for their wild predators.  However, it is exactly these traits that make males so attractive to females.  A number of studies have shown that females (peahens) are more likely to breed with makes whose trains have certain qualities, such as those that are longer or have more eye spots1.  Sometimes safety is sacrificed in order to gain access to reproductive partners, and in many cases it pays off.  After all, the success of an animal is not measured in its longevity, health, or looks, except how these relate to the number of offspring they produce, that in turn live long enough to reproduce themselves.

Capitalizing on calisthenics

Reptiles are no exception to the rule.  Attracting a mate is of upmost importance, but you still have to be careful about not attracting predators.  One way around this dilemma is to produce signals that are only visible to conspecifics.  For lizards, this usually means signals that are highly visible to other animals on the same horizontal plane, but less visible to aerial predators a primary concern for most small lizards).  The push up is a great example of this.

Many lizards, such as sceloporus species (e.g. fence lizards and spiny lizards), common out here in Southern California, can be seen doing pushup displays on any high point in the terrain (usually a rock or boulder).  The movement is easily seen by us human onlookers, and is also visible to other nearby lizards that are likely keeping an eye on their neighbors.  However, if seen from above, this is not a display that creates a lot of visual commotion.  While movement of any kind is a risk, the type of movement can make all the difference.  A display that is highly visible to conspecifics, but not particularly visible to predators is a great form of communication.

But back to the point—how do visual signals, such as a push up, relate to breeding behavior?  Like the peacock, it’s all about getting attention.  Many signals can communicate the same thing to both sexes, but with very different outcomes.  For example, a male bearded dragon that performs a lot of head bobs may be communicating his dominance, ownership of a territory, his energy reserves, or a combination of all three.  To other males, this may be sign that they should stay away.  After all, if the displaying male is confident enough to display himself prominently, he has likely had to fight for that position, and may be a formidable opponent.  He must also have lots of energy reserves to continually display, meaning that he may also have lots of energy for fighting as well.

Lateral Compression in a Fence Lizard

While a push up might signal health and dominance to an onlooker, this may have a very different effect on females.  To a female, these traits communicate that a particular male has good genes to pass on to his offspring.  And remember—at its most basic level, life is about reproduction.  Signals that show off a male’s ability to survive, thrive, and produce hardy offspring may have the dual purpose of reinforcing a male’s status while also attracting females.

Color me pretty

While displays of physical ability are common forms of communication among lizards, it is perhaps overshadowed by the incredible array of color exhibited by these squamates.

Unlike most mammals, many lizards see in wide range of colors.  As humans, we have three different color receptors in our eyes that through combination (and your brain’s interpretation) give us the standard rainbow colors, and all those in between.  Most other mammals see the world with comparably limited color.  Your dog and cat, for example, can see blue, but lack the receptors to see red and green.  Some animals see in shades of black, white, and gray.  While it is impossible to make a blanket statement about reptile color vision, we can say that some species possess a highly evolved visual system that allows them to see color the same way, and in some cases even better than, the way we humans do.

From the black beard of a bearded dragon to the myriad colors exhibited by chameleons, color display is perhaps visual communication at its most interesting.  Like physical displays, color is usually an excellent communicator of health and good genetics.  More or more vibrant color has been linked to a number of other fitness indicators across different species, including an animal’s size2, fighting ability3, the amount of courtship a male performs4, body condition5, and even parasite load6, 7.  All of these qualities can contribute to a healthy individual that is bothnot worth fighting, and probably worth mating with.  Color is a way to communicate fitness without putting much physical effort into it.

Male Beardie with dark beard

Color is also used to enhance other displays, making them more visible to conspecifics.  Think of a male bearded dragon head bobbing on his perch.  The dark black beard makes that head and the motion more visible, further emphasizing the overall display.  A fence lizard’s defensive and aggressive displays also utilize color and position.  When the body is laterally compressed (sides pressed flat), it emphasizes the blue ventral (tummy) color that gives them the colloquial name of “blue belly” lizard.  Flashing some color when you need to may help dissuade an aggressor.

Although many males exploit color for communication, they are not the only ones.  Females of many species also use color to communicate.  One example is the color changes that some female lizards undergo when gravid.  What is the first sign that a female chameleon is gravid?  Her color changes—and it is not limited to chameleons.  Many female lizards change color to indicate that they are no longer receptive to a male’s advances.  This saves the male wastedtime courting a female he cannot impregnate, and the female is saved the hassle of prolonged male harassment.

In conclusion

Animals have a number of ways that they communicate with one another.  For some, auditory communication is preferred, for others, chemical cues are of upmost importance.  For many lizards, visual communication is perhaps the most widely used.  From pushups to head bobs, flashy agamas to gravid chameleons, visual signals are some of the most interesting.  They can often communicate incredibly important information to conspecifics, sometimes with no immediate effort at all.  So next time your anole flashes his dewlap, your bearded dragon head bobs, or your chameleon changes color, give ‘em a nod back.

REFERENCES
1) Loyau et al. (2005)
2) Vásquez & Pfennig (2007)
3) McElroy et al. (2007)
4) Sorenson & Derrickson (1994)
5) Elder & Friedl (2010)
6) Mougeot et al. (2009)
7) Václav et al. (2007)

Basic Ball Python Breeding: Using a Punnett Square – December 2012

By Jennifer Greene

Ball Pythons have some of the most diverse and beautiful combinations of mutations that affect their color and pattern.  In the last 10 years, the number of genetically inherited traits that we have discovered in ball pythons is easily several dozen of single, simple traits, with the combination of those traits easily numbering into the hundreds.   For the average person just beginning to scratch the surface of ball python breeding, learning about all the morphs and mutations, and all the fancy names for them, can seem extremely daunting.  When you own morphs and are trying to create new ones, or just figuring out what you could potentially hatch out when you breed together animals carrying different traits, it can seem nearly impossible to memorize all the possible combinations and outcomes.  Fortunately, you don’t need to memorize the hundreds of combinations; instead, you can use a formula called a Punnett Square to predict your chances of hatching out specific types of offspring.  Using a punnett square properly will enable you to figure out potential offspring for any possible combination of traits.

In this article, it’s my goal to help you understand how to use a simple punnett square.  To learn how to combine two, three, or more traits in a punnett square, I highly recommend picking up The Complete Ball Python, which has two excellent chapters on punnett squares that will help you out.  In addition, search online for a free tutorial on genetics to help you out, or even consider enrolling in a basic biology course for a more thorough understanding.  Next month’s article will cover basic breeding principles such as inbreeding, line breeding, outcrossing, and their relevance in reptile breeding programs over the short and long term.

First, let’s talk about recessive traits.  These traits are only visible when an animal has two copies of the gene, one from each parent.  Some examples of recessive traits are clowns, piebalds, ghosts, and the various types of albinos.  Understanding how to predict your clutches is fairly easy  – use that punnett square! It’s a fairly simple method of determining probability per egg of what could hatch out.

Below I’ve drawn a simple square – for any single recessive trait, this is all you need to do to determine your chances of hatching out each baby.  For punnett squares, the use of capital and lowercase letters indicates which gene is dominant over another.  In recessive mutations, the normal type is going to be dominant over the recessive trait, so the capital letter A is going to mean the normal gene, while the lower case a means the recessive trait – albino for this example.  Each trait has two copies of the gene, so when writing out the genes of an animal, you’ll always use two letters – a het albino would be Aa, and an albino would be aa, and a normal would be AA.

Along the top of your square, put one of the parents.  In our example, we’ll have a het albino breed with an albino.  Up top, I’ll have the het albino parent (which gender they are doesn’t matter).  Along the side goes another parent (again, gender doesn’t matter for this), and this one will be the albino.  Each box gets 1 letter.

http://lllreptile.com/load-image/StoreInventoryImage/image/10230

When you carry down the letters to fill in the box, you’ll see that you get two possible outcomes – Aa, het albinos, and aa, albinos.  Since one of the parents was an albino, all normal looking babies are going to be het albinos.  You might be asking about what happens when you breed two het albinos together… Well, this is what that punnett square would look like:

Punnet Square Two

You see that there are now 3 types of outcomes.  AA, or completely normal babies, Aa, or het albino babies, and aa, or albino babies.  The albino babies will be easy to pick out when they hatch, but what about the normal and het babies?  They both have at least one copy of the normal gene, which means they will look totally normal.  This situation is how possible hets are made.  Since there is no visible difference between a normal ball python and a het albino ball python, instead many breeders will sell the offspring at a discounted price compared to guaranteed hets, and call them 66% hets.  The 66% refers to the probability of each normal looking baby being a het – it’s a short hand way of saying that the normal babies have a 66% chance of being het for albino.  Buying these kinds of hets is a kind of calculated gamble, but can be a great way to score some hets for a discounted price.   There are hets sold as smaller percents, such as 50% hets and 33% hets, and the same kind of short hand applies. Any time there is a percent in front of the word het, what should be referred to is the percent chance of that animal being het.

Ball Pythons are one of the most rewarding species to breed for fancy morphs because so many of the morphs are visible in the first generation.  These morphs are referred to as codominant in the reptile hobby, although technically the term is inaccurate (it’s been noted that the correct term should be incomplete dominant).  Codominant morphs have a “super” form, which is when an animal has two copies of the trait.  To show you in the form of a punnett square, writing out codominant traits is a little different than recessive.  The capital letter in this case is the trait that is more dominant, so for a pastel, refers to the pastel trait, while is the normal gene.  We’ll write up a punnett square to describe breeding a pastel to a pastel.

Punnett Square Three

Three potential combinations occur – normal babies, pp, more pastels, Pp, and super pastels, PP.  Another term for super pastels is homozygous pastel, meaning that they have two copies of the pastel gene.  A simpler definition for homozygous is same, meaning that the genes are the same, while heterozygous means mixed, or the genes are not the same.  For some codominant traits, the homozygous form may look nothing like the heterozygous form.   Lessers, Butters, and Mojaves are an example of this – they are all the heterozygous form of a blue eyed leucistic snake.  Yellowbellies are the heterozygous form of the ivory ball python, and fires are the heterozygous form of the black eyed leucistic.  Many codominant mutations have a homozygous (or super) form that looks like an extreme version of the heterozygous form, and when new mutations come out, discovering what the super expression looks like is one of the most exciting aspects of proving out the morph.

Fortunately for ball python breeders, the majority of ball python morphs are codominant, meaning that in the first generation of offspring you should see some babies that are visible morphs.  This makes them extremely gratifying for the beginner, as you see results relatively quickly.  There are also a handful of morphs that for all intents and purposes, are dominant traits, meaning that there is no super form.  Dominant traits express the same regardless if the animal has one or two copies of the gene.  Spider ball pythons and Pinstripe ball pythons could both be considered dominant, although popular opinion on spider ball pythons is still inconclusive as to whether or not a “super” form exists.  Generally speaking, it is frowned upon to breed spider x spider or pinstripe x pinstripe, as it can result in weaker or misshapen offspring that often do not thrive.  In addition, many do not see any real benefit to that breeding, as your chances for producing more morphs per clutch do not increase significantly.  I’ll create the punnett square for you to look at the pairing and the results.  We’ll do a pinstripe x pinstripe, with P indicating the pinstripe gene, and p indicating normal.

Punnet Square Four

So, as you can see we get slightly increased odds of hatching out a pinstripe per egg.  Instead of a 50% chance of each egg having a pinstripe in it (as would be the case when breeding a pinstripe to a normal), you have a 75% chance per egg of hatching out a pinstripe.  However, that 75% actually breaks down into a 50% chance of a regular, or heterozygous pinstripe (only one copy of the pinstripe gene) and a 25% chance of a homozygous, or super, pinstripe.  Now, pinstripes don’t have a super form that looks different from the form with only one copy of the gene.  This means that when you create a homozygous pinstripe, you will not be able to tell it apart from your heterozygous pinstripes.

Why does it matter if you can tell a homozygous pinstripe apart from a heterozygous pinstripe, you ask?  Because when you raise up that baby homozygous pinstripe and breed it to anything else, it will always produce pinstripes!  That makes it a valuable addition to a breeding project, although not visually more interesting than any other morph.  Morphs that are genetically homozygous will always produce offspring that are morphs, which is why they generally fetch a higher price and can be considered more valuable to breeding projects.  For a pet, there is no difference or benefit to getting a morph beyond appearance, so make your decision on a pet snake based on what you find the most visually appealing.  When it comes to pet snakes, the genes behind their appearance are only as important as you want them to be.

There is one last type of morph that is available, and often quite a steal for a fancy looking pet snake, and that’s the “non-genetic” morphs.  Labyrinths, Jungles (not to be confused with pastels, which are sometimes archaically referred to as pastel jungles), and a handful of other unique looking ball pythons are different in appearance than a normal ball python, but genetically they are no different.  While many folks refer to these snakes as “non-genetic” morphs, that is a bit of a misnomer, as appearance is always to a certain extent controlled by the genes of the animal (thus, genetic).  However, these morphs are not inheritable, or passed on from one generation to the next.  If you were to breed a Jungle ball python to a normal, you would get entirely normal babies, with no increased likelihood of hatching more jungles.  Occasionally, when temperatures fluctuate greatly during incubation, pattern or color can be affected: I personally have seen a clutch of extremely unique looking pastels with scrambled and reduced pattern that were the result of some accidental and extreme temperature fluctuations during incubation.  They were very pretty, but their unique appearance was not a trait they were able to pass on to their offspring.

In closing, I just want to emphasize again the importance of selecting snakes to add to your collection that you enjoy and want to keep.  If breeding, especially on a larger scale, is your goal, then consider taking a basic course on genetics (there are numerous free tutorials online).  The punnett square is an extremely useful tool for understanding odds and probabilities for certain crosses, but remember that each punnett square is calculating your odds per egg, not per clutch, and does not tell you the guaranteed outcome of each breeding.  It is a helpful tool to see possibilities, and not a fortune telling device.

Dangerous Discussions: Part One – October 2012

The Reptile Times

DANGEROUS DISCUSSIONS

PART I

By Kevin Scott

Over the last couple of months, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss with various people the differences between poisons, toxins and venoms a surprising number of times. Having studied chemistry, carried out research in a biochemistry and molecular biology laboratory, and having worked in the reptile industry for close to a decade, I find the topic especially interesting when it pertains to herpetofauna.

Depending on whom you ask, the precise definitions for poison, toxin, and venom will differ slightly. There are, however, major differences between these terms, and often the terms are erroneously interchanged. The following is a brief discussion of these differences. Let’s start off by taking a look at and comparing definitions from The Oxford English Dictionary and Stedman’s Concise Medical Dictionary.

Oxford English Dictionary

Stedman’s Concise Medical Dictionary

Poison

A substance that, when introduced to or absorbed by a living organism causes death or injury. Any substance, either taken internally or applied externally, that is injurious to health or dangerous to life.

Toxin

An antigenic poison or venom of plant or animal origin. A noxious or poisonous substance that is formed or elaborated during the metabolism and growth of certain microorganisms and some higher plant and animal species.

Venom

Poisonous fluid secreted by animals such as snakes and scorpions and typically injected into prey or aggressors by biting or stinging. A poisonous fluid secreted by snakes, spiders, scorpions and other cold-blooded animals.

POISON

According to the way that we have defined these terms here, the word poison behaves as sort of an umbrella term for things that can harm biological systems. Poisons include substances that range from household cleaners and pesticides to large organic molecules found in frogs and protein complexes found in snake venom. While the small, brightly colored South American dart frogs are commonly called Poison Frogs, or Poison Arrow Frogs (family Dendrobatidae), it is generally considered incorrect to refer to a venomous snake as a poisonous snake (I will explain why in a moment), although this happens rather often.

TOXINS & VENOM

According to these definitions, a toxin is a type of poison that is produced through a biological pathway. Although this particular medical dictionary’s definition does not make it explicit, toxinologists generally agree that toxins must be taken into the body by absorption or consumption. Venoms, in contrast, must be ‘injected’ into the body by way a specially evolved mechanism, for instance, a stinger or fangs. (I use the word ‘injected’ loosely here, more on this in part II).

In addition to the differences in the mode of application, toxins and venoms are comprised of substances that are inherently different from one another. Toxins tend to consist of comparatively simple organic molecules while venom is usually comprised of an array of peptides and proteins that possess enzymatic activity. In general, venoms are extremely complex mixtures of different compounds while toxins are chemically well defined, pure, and homogenous substances (Mebs 2002).

All amphibians secrete ‘toxic’ substances through their skin that act as anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agents to help them avoid contracting illnesses (Clark 2007). Many species secrete more potent compounds as anti-predatory mechanisms. A particularly well-characterized group is the Arrow Frogs. Several species belonging to this group possess extremely potent toxins, many of which are alkaline steroids. The frogs use these compounds as a defense, and the mechanism through which they work are part of the definition of what a toxin is. Because there is no delivery system for these compounds, they must be consumed by a predator in order for them to be employed. Venom is usually secreted from specialized gland or tissue and is subsequently stored in specialized sacs until it is used. Technically venom can be referred to as being toxic or poisonous, but an animal, a snake for example, that is venomous, is not poisonous, because it wouldn’t harm you to eat it.

ETYMOLOGY

The origin of words is a topic that I find interesting and illuminating. Sometimes you can quickly see the Latin or Greek root of a word just by looking at it, but sometimes the derivation is not immediately obvious. The origin of the word toxin for example, I found surprising.

Poison

Comes from Middle English (probably 15th century) denoting a harmful medical drink, which comes from Old French poison, a potion or poisonous drink (14th century), previously simply a drink (12th century), but originally from Latin, potare, to drink.

Toxin

Comes from the Latin toxicus or toxicum, meaning poisoned or poison, respectively, from the Greek wordtoxikon, or (poison for) arrows, from the Greek toxon, or bow. I found it interesting that the source of the word toxin comes from poisons that were extracted from plants and invertebrates to coat the tips of arrows by ancient Greeks and Romans. The Poison Arrow Frogs obviously got their common name because theirtoxins were used for the same purpose.

Venom

Comes from Middle English, from the Old French venim, a variation of venin from an alteration of the Latinvenenum, or poison.

CLOSING REMARKS

In closing, I would like to point out that I am by no means offering precise definitions for any of the terms used. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that there are no watertight definitions for any of these words. For one thing, biology and biochemistry are so incredibly complex that it is near impossible to precisely define these things by placing them neatly into some well-defined little boxes, there always seem to be exceptions to every rule. Language is always changing and words usually have more than one meaning, so even a precise definition can be open to interpretation. The language discussed here is only relevant within the English language, but there are at least thirteen dialects of English, each with its own differences from modern American English.

When setting out to writing this article I had two points in mind:

  1. To explore some of the fascinating issues that arise when language is used to describe biological systems. Language is inherently obscure and biology is inherently complex. I feel that both are important to understand and interesting to study.
  2. To clear up some of differences between terms in an attempt to at least tighten up the definitions already in place. Even though biology always seems to offer exceptions, we can at least attempt to avoid some of the common errors in terminology.

In part I of this article I have played with the etymology of poisons, toxins, and venom. In part II of this article I will probe deeper into the biology and chemistry of toxins and venom and the evolutionary impact on delivery systems, and I will discuss various types of each.

Mebs, Dietrich. 2002. Venomous and Poisonous Animals: A Handbook for Biologists, Toxicologists and Toxinologists, Physicians and Pharmacists. Stuttgart: Medpharm.

Clark, BT. 2007. “The Natural History of Amphibian Skin Secretions, Their Normal Functioning and Potential Medical Applications.” Biological Reviews. (3):365-379.