Friday, 26 July 2013

Morphs: Have we gone too far? – via Herp Digest

Designer dogs could not be more popular right now as breeds like puggles, choodles and the ever popular labradoodle are being embedded into our culture more than ever now but are designer reptiles far behind? If you have been involved in the reptile industry in the last 10 years you would know, they are here. We see tables in reptile shows dedicated to ball pythons alone and that is just one example of the many species breeders have been able to get every color and pattern imaginable on. There literally is something for everyone all included into one species of animal and of course, there is something for the breeders as well. The ability to boast, you were the first to produce a certain morph, as they are called, is something breeders can now laud over other breeders. No longer is it good enough to have kept more species successfully than another, but you must have the newest, craziest morph line out there. The financial gain to breeders is nothing to scoff at either with some individual animals reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars. Whether it be for fame or fortune the morph industry not only produces some really cool looking animals, it also gets people into the hobby that wouldn’t otherwise. Always remember, that every silver lining is attached to a dark cloud. We have seen this kind of thing before, and it hasn’t turned out well.

Pedigree dogs are nothing new in the pet industry for sure, until recently they have been known as the pinnacle of breeding, excellence in the industry. You paid good money for a pedigree and it ensured you have the best of the best purebred dog. Information in the last decade or so has brought to light problems that these pet owners have experienced for the most part was in private. Health  issues such as hip dysplasia, vision problems and even severe symptoms of neurological disorders.

Documentaries have been made, comparisons between a breed 100 years ago and today have shown us the dramatic effects this type of breeding has caused. The type of breeding I am referring to is what I would like to call eugenic breeding. Eugenics was first proposed by Sir Francis Dalton shortly after Charles Darwin published his works On the Origin of Species and it suggests that certain desirable traits can be engineered in future populations. This of course led to Nazi Germany proposing using eugenics to systematically breed out certain portions of the population. While we can obviously agree that ethically this is wrong, it being used in human populations to dispose of undesirable people’s, we have used this methodology to produce, rather than destroy. Dogs, horses, and now reptiles are being bred to bring out certain desirable traits that people want to buy. Even though eugenic breeding is used to create rather than destroy we have brought about unforeseen problems within animal populations. Chances are you know at least one person who has owned a pure bred dog, and has found the inherit health problems that accompany ownership of them. German Shepherds often have hip issues due to the standards put in place by organizations that determine what the animal should look like. Certain breeds of dogs have much more severe issues than skeletal disorders ranging from total blindness, to neurological disorders that are often times fatal. If you know a horse breeder you may have heard of Lethal White Foal Syndrome, where a foal emerges and soon dies. These problems, I would suggest is a by-product of eugenic breeding and I will get to the causes of this later on this article.

If you speak with any reptile keeper about the hobby 15 years ago you will almost always get the same type of response. It wasn’t about the morphs you had, it was about the different animal species you kept and bred. Since those time we have seen a shift in the hobby geared more towards who has what morph and who can produce the next crazy morph. I have seen collectors now that have dozens upon dozens of ball pythons but does not keep a single other species. Of course there have seen benefits to this surge of morphs and variations, one being the popularity of reptiles as pets. There have also been negative effects as well. As breeders constantly try to create the newest, craziest morphs we are starting to see side effects from eugenic breeding in some species. Spider morph ball pythons have a well-known head wobble and display Parkinson’s like symptoms. While this trait may not be desirable aesthetically, it has been said that it does not affect the overall health of the animal. Currently no studies have been done regarding this. We have leopard geckos that are born blind, and there have been reports of a similar affliction to Lethal White Foal Syndrome in jaguar ball python morphs, although many of them unconfirmed. While we are not seeing widespread illness and afflictions in the reptile world, it has started and I would maintain that with continued, unchecked eugenic breeding favoring the colors and patterns over health, we will see it more often to the point where we have a new pedigree issue.

Earlier in the article I mentioned that there are no real studies done on a lot of the morph issues that are developing but based on our current understanding of anatomy and biology we can infer a few things. Eugenic breeding favors an aesthetically pleasing looking animal over natural selection(It should be noted that captive breeding is not natural selection but it can be emulated as close as possible) and the result of this means that certain “unseen” traits may not be passed down to the next generation. Some of these unseen traits could be disease resistance, organ strength, digestive effectiveness and so on. While we have mapped the genome of the Burmese python, it is not yet studied as in-depth as the human genome. Using the human genome as a basis, we know that certain traits are tied together with certain genes, some traits may be unrelated to other traits on the same gene and even still, some traits are tied to genes that have mostly junk DNA(a direct result of evolution over time). While a breeder may want to prove out a certain pattern, it is very likely that they do not know what traits are associated with the gene that causes a certain pattern to emerge. 

The end result
would be the lack of a certain unseen trait that may have benefited the animal. This is what happens when you take natural selection out of the breeding process. In natural selection, animals have developed ways to sort out who is stronger and therefore more desirable a mate. We see it a lot in the reptile world, certain species of lizards will flash bright colors, or in the case of the green anole, who has the brighter, larger dewlap. While this may seem counterproductive to my claim, in nature the ones with the flashier display are usually the ones that survived the longest because they are strong. If an animal has brighter and flashier colors, but its legs did not work as well as another, it would get eaten, or it could not get enough food to live. Natural selection is amazing at giving us animals that are not only bright and flashy, but stronger as well.

The purpose of this article is not to berate or judge breeders and consumers, it is to inform you on the problems that are usually associated with eugenic breeding. The reptile health problems we are seeing today are not to the extent as the dog breeding industry by any means but if past observations are any indication, it could be. We have seen time and time again the results of breeding for aesthetic purposes taking priority over health and we need not look far to see what could happen to our hobby. Further studies should be done on this issue before it becomes a large problem. There currently is no solution to the underlying problem other than look for health in animals as opposed to the look of them. As long as there is a market for morphs, breeders will breed them. Consumers should be aware of what they are getting when they choose to buy a morph and breeders should be held accountable to produce healthier animals and not bright flashy ones. The free market will determine the future of the morphs and based on scientific studies and consumer awareness, one would hope it takes on a natural selection methodology in itself and weed out the bad and sick. As a consumer, you must be aware of the potential health risks of certain morphs as well as knowing who the reputable breeders are and who is just in it for the money. This is the only way our hobby can avoid an epidemic of sick animals and high vet bills.

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