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When looking for snakes I often see the term morph flying around. What does it mean exactly?

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Within the snake trade there is a lot of effort going towards breeding animals with different coloration. A well known example of this is an albino mutation. Albino means that the animal is missing all (or most) colour.

There are a couple of snake species that have a very active breeding community for creating morphs. Most of these species are commonly kept as pets as a result (or is it cause?).

  • Ball Pythons
  • Corn Snakes
  • Boa Constrictors
  • Burmese Pythons
  • King Snakes
  • Reticulated Pythons
  • Carpet Pythons

but also

  • Leopard Geckos
  • Bearded Dragons

How are morphs created?

At the basis, morphs are discovered. A specimen is found, usually in the wild that just happens to have this mutation by chance. If it is found, someone could decide to import it (generally for quite a lot of money) and hope (gamble) the difference in patterning is caused by a genetic factor. If it is, it can be bred and reproduced. More exact genetics are covered in this answer.

Combining morphs

The next step is to combine morphs. If you have a snake with a reduced pattern, and another that misses all black colour for example, these can be crossbred, and way down the line this might produce animals that are both missing black, and having a reduced pattern. This can go quite extreme.

Examples

Some examples with Ball pythons. First the wildtype (normal colouring), taken from Wikipedia:

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A Piebald morph:

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Prices

These animals can go for very high prices. Due to the randomness involved in genetics, odds for specific combinations of morphs can go very very low, making the more "exotic" morphs very rare. Babies can go for several thousands of dollars, up to tens of thousands when a new morph is found. In contract, more common morphs - morphs that have been on the market for a while - can go for only a few bucks more than the wildtype.

Controversies

There are a couple of controversies around morphs:

  • There are a couple of morphs that appear to affect the snake in other ways than just in color. An example is the Ball python's Spider morph, which appears to cause neural defects, exhibited by weird movements of the head. Another example is the Carpet Python's Jaguar gene, which also appears to cause various neurological defects.
  • There are morphs that alter the physique of the snakes as well. A big example of this is the scaleless mutation in both cornsnakes and Ball pythons. These snakes don't have scales, relying on their skin underneath instead.
  • With these genetic crossings, the increasing amount of inbreeding is always a concern. Most morphs originate from one specimen after all.

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