Morph it or leave it

Morph it or leave it:

in defence of unnatural selection.

This article was published in iHerp Australia - April 2018 | Issue 5

Andy Horlor is the vice president of the Illawarra Reptile Society and owner of Fuzzy Fox Reptiles and Rodents that specializes in breeding pythons, monitors and rodents. But what made a diehard purist become mad about morphs?

I have seen many changes in the reptile hobby over the years, but the one that sticks out in my mind more than any other was the introduction of morphs. As the first morphs began to enter the Australian market, it became clear that the hobby was becoming divided; you either loved the ‘new and improved’ animals or you were more than happy with the colour forms that evolution had blessed us with. I was to be found in the latter group – the ‘purists’. Like many others in this camp, my mind was made up; no one should be altering our native animals in such dramatic fashion. The mere thought of putting two different subspecies together for breeding purposes would send me into a cold sweat!

For nearly 10 years I looked at morphs as nothing more than monstrosities and scoffed with self-righteous disbelief whenever I heard the word ‘Jag’ mentioned aloud. However, about eight years ago that was all about to change, and by crikey change it did! Today my collection consists of over 100 animals and about two-thirds of them are morphs.

So what happened? How could someone that was completely devoted to the keeping and breeding of animals that needed to be found under the same rock in order to be paired and bred together become so comprehensively converted? Allow me to set the stage....

One day I had a clutch of Diamond Pythons (Morelia spilota spilota) hatching; these were Gosford locality animals and I was excitedly setting them up in their new tubs. I looked through the clutch and found one I liked. I placed it in the first tub in the rack as a ‘keeper’ and proceeded to do the same with two more individuals.

Then I started to think about what I had done - how I had ‘selected’ what I deemed to be the best out of the clutch. This began a compounding thought process as I started to think more and more about the animals I had held onto over the years of breeding; animals that fed better, seemed calmer, had brighter colours or different patterns. The inescapable conclusion was that I was altering these ‘pure’ or ‘natural’ animals in the same way that morph breeders might! Sure, I was only working at a polygenic level, and not with dramatic mutations with proven modes of inheritance, but nonetheless, animals were being selected and therefore modified by human intervention. There was nothing natural or pure about it.

I also started thinking over my many years of selling snakes; no one had ever contacted me asking for a dull and boring looking animal. Even if they wanted a wild type, they would always ask for the one with the best colours – and it had to be feeding well on an artificial diet of captive-bred rodents, plus possess a calm demeanour.

A few months later I decided to compare the hold-backs from my clutch of Gosford Diamond Pythons to the original pair that founded this line. One was wild caught and the other a first generation captive, as pure as you could get. The offspring I held in my hand were five generations removed from these animals and looked nothing like them. I hadn’t realized that all along, through all those years of breeding pythons, I had been selecting for what I deemed to be the best-looking snakes – nature no longer had a say in it!

It was from that moment that I started to investigate the other side of the hobby; the ‘dark side’ had me in its grip! It became clear to me that I was also turning away from the world of genetics, not just because I thought I was a purist, but because I didn’t understand it. I decided to take the plunge and went and purchased my first albino Darwin Carpet Python (Morelia spilota variegata) at a time when they still cost an arm and a leg and a left testicle! Once I had that animal in my collection it didn't take me long to get my head around how the recessive mode of inheritance worked, and it all snowballed from there.

Morphs are not going anywhere and will always be a permanent part of the hobby, but you still hear the purists condemn them with cries of, “It’s not natural," "It’s a threat to our native populations," "I wouldn't breed anything that didn't come from the wild," etc.

The reality is that there is nothing natural about what we do in the reptile hobby. We keep reptiles in boxes, heat them with electricity, use artificial lights and feed them prepackaged food. Humans have been modifying captive animals for literally thousands of years, so why the outrage when we do it with reptiles? You don't see people walking wolves down the street. Furthermore, humans, cats, dogs and foxes, to name a few, pose far bigger threats to our native species than the occasional, escaped, brightly-coloured snake that will stand out so vividly in the natural environment that it will stand little chance of survival, even if climatic conditions are favourable.

With the advent of these brightly-coloured animals entering the hobby we have seen an explosion in the popularity of keeping reptiles as pets, and that in itself can only be a good thing. There’s no doubt that many more colourful reptiles will be produced in years to come, and I can only see the positives that the ‘morph market’ will bring. The obvious one is that morphs can only be bred in captivity, so poaching will become pointless, thereby reducing stress on native populations. Attitudes within the community are changing for the better, and even those with a deep-seated fear of snakes may be enticed to take a second look at animals that are so visually appealing. The notion that the ‘only good snake is a dead snake’ is disappearing and people are becoming increasingly interested in the conservation of our scaly friends.

So, am I of the opinion that the purists should get with the times and give up with this nonsense of trying to keep animals as natural-looking as possible? Absolutely not! Pure, wild-type bloodlines are essential to retain vigour in captive populations – as any self-respecting morph breeder will tell you. I still have locality-type animals in my collection and probably always will. I breed them every now and then simply because I like them, but that doesn’t stop me selecting the best of the hatchlings. If I can continue to convince the odd person to put the shovel away and come have a look at one of my designer animals, in the hope that it may change their mind about reptiles, then I will continue to breed morphs for many years to come.


Text Box:

Morph (‘more-f’, n. from Greek morphe: form): one of a number of different forms of an animal or plant; an aberration; the best-looking snake you will ever see!