What is a Snake Morph?

Banana California King Snake 

What exactly is a snake morph? I was wondering the same thing, so I dove in to some research to find out.

What is a snake morph? Scientifically a snake morph is defined as a phenotypically distinct form of an organism or species. This means that the snake in question looks different than what that breed of snake normally looks like, but it is not a different species of snake.

In this manner, a snake may have a completely different color or pattern than would be expected of that species of the snake while still be able to breed with others of its own kind.

Morphs are incredibly interesting parts of snakes. They are the visual aspects of a snake that can make them so appealing. It is because of this visual appeal that snakes with different morphs may sell for more. This can also make it difficult to identify snakes as they may appear different than usual based on their morph. So how do morphs come about? What morphs are the most well-known? Can you breed snakes to make morphs? All of this and more below as we dive into the world of snake morphs.

Why do Morphs Occur?

This simple answer is genetics, but assuming that you are as unsatisfied with that answer as I was, I dove into further. Fair warning here though, we are going to delve deep into the genetics and get kind of technical so bear with me.

Let us start by talking about human genetics so that we have a baseline to work off of. So humans are composed of several cells which are controlled by DNA. The reason that we look the way we, our phenotypical appearance, is because of our chromosomes.

In humans, we have 46 chromosomes: 23 from your dad and 23 from your mom. These chromosomes were originally contained in gametes which are the sex cells of the body, or the sperm and the egg. When these two gametes successfully combine, then you have a child born who is composed of 46 chromosomes two pairs of 23, one from each parent.

On the chromosomes are genes and it is these genes that determine whether or not you look the way you do. And the dominant or recessive nature of those genes will determine which of those genes appear on you.

Snakes have 36 chromosomes, once again in pairs, so two sets of 18 chromosomes. Every chromosome that has a gene for the color of something, like let’s say eye color, has another similar gene on the other paired chromosome.

These genes are then combined and determine the appearance of the creature. This works through how dominant each gene is. For instance, the eye color of humans has genes for colors like green, blue, and brown. This is simplified as eye color is actually far harder to determine than using a simple Mendelian punnet square. But in the simplified version, brown is a dominant trait and if the dominant trait exists within a person they will have brown eyes.

Recessive traits such as blue and green will only appear if the child receives two genes of the recessive trait from their parents. In this manner, having two blue genes means your eyes are blue but having one brown gene and one blue gene, or having two brown genes will mean their eyes are brown.

Snakes have the same quality in their pattern and color. That’s what causes these morphs. Based on these chromosomes, the skin cells of the snake are produced and each cell has a certain number of genes turned on and off. This is functionally what makes the cells look different or act differently.

Now the original reason for the creation of the different phenotypical appearance, or physically viewed appearance, is from mutations. So as gametes, sex cells, are created they go through a process of replication. This replication process, while usually very efficient and productive, does not always produce a perfect replica. The result is a mutation in the creature.

These mutations can be as complicated and harmful as malformed organs or a simple as the change in color of a creature. 

Snakes, like all creatures, have had several years to mutate and they now have a large collection of mutations that have resulted in multiple morphs of these snakes.

So to sum up this very complicated genetic concept: the appearance of a creature is formed by the genes of the creature.

These genes are located on the chromosomes of the creature. A creatures chromosomes are inherited in two sets from the gametes, or sex cells of each parent.

The result is a full set of chromosomes from each parent which merge as sets of pairs. Each pair then displays their phenotypical properties dependent on the dominant or recessive nature of each gene.

Finally, each gene transmits this information to the individual’s cells which make up the body of the creature, and each cell is told to display or not display certain qualities that the chromosomes have told the body are significant. And the overall result is the displaying of mutations that have happened throughout generations appearing in the different colors/patterns of snake or morphs.

For a more in-depth guide on reptile genetics check out this article: A Crash Course on Reptile Genetics.

Can You Breed Morphs?

Once you understand that morphs are genetic, it makes sense that you should be able to breed certain morphs right? Well yes, this all changes depending on what you want to have appear in your snake. For instance, the simple concept of recessive and dominant genes are not always what the color of a snake works off of so you don’t always know what you are going to get when breeding snakes.

Once again this is incredibly simplified but the genes of snake can fall into three general categories: Dominant, Recessive, and Co-dominant. Dominant and Recessive are things we have talked about before but co-dominant is when both genes will portray themselves in the creature.

This is where it can get hard to determine what breeding two snakes will produce for you as a co-dominant snake will only share one of the genes that it shows, meaning that it’s baby will have only one of the genes it shows appear in him, unless he has gained the other gene from the other snake.

So the short answer is that you can try, but it is not easy to predict what the baby of two snakes will look like.

Renown Morphs of Snakes

There is one morph of snake that is particularly famous. They are called piebald snakes. These snakes have a mutation called piebaldism which can appear in multiple creatures on planet Earth including humans.

Piebaldism is a mutation which causes parts of the creature’s skin to not produce melanin, the nutrient which causes skin to have color.

As such, piebaldism demonstrates itself in a snake by having bands of white that contrast the natural color of a snake.

These snakes are considered incredibly attractive and almost always are sold at very high prices given their general rarity. Piebaldism has been found to be a recessive trait in snakes.

On top of piedbaldism, one other famous morph is albinism. Albino snakes are snakes that appear pale or white on their bodies. Unlike piebaldism, this mutation is present throughout the whole body. These snakes are also sold for higher prices but are not as valuable as piebald snakes.

Related Questions

What are naturally colored snakes called? A snake that has no morph and appears as the traditional color of the snake species is called a wild morph or a normal morph. The majority of snakes appear like this as they are the ones without a mutation. Though certain snakes have so many mutations it gets hard to tell which is the wild morph. 

What is het snake breeding? Het is slang for heterogeneous, which means that a snake has one dominant and one recessive gene. The goal of het breeding is to get the recessive gene to demonstrate itself through the breeding of two of these heterogeneous snakes and having a baby that gets both recessive genes from their parents.  

How many morphs can snakes have? Theoretically, snakes can have an unlimited number of morphs. California King Snakes, for instance, have over 70 known morphs. Since these morphs have the potential to be bred to create more morphs, the number can keep going up. So the number of known morphs for each snake may be recordable, but the number of potential morphs is rarely ever understood.

Connor

Connor is a nerd to the highest degree. Having grown up on comic, StarWars, and Lord of the Rings he found that stories were his passion. Throughout his life, he has softened life's falls with the hardcover of a book. Writing has become a passion for Connor, no matter the subject, as he loves how words can be used in so many different and persuasive combinations.

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