Each ball python is an individual that looks slightly different from the others. Your ball python will not look exactly like your friend’s ball python. Most will have the same basic aesthetic, but they’ll display subtle differences. This one may have more black coloration; that one may have a partial stripe down his back.
But some ball pythons look extremely different from others. Some are clad in incredibly unusual colors or patterns, which can often be passed on to the snake’s offspring.
These types of unusual and genetically heritable color patterns are typically called “morphs” by hobbyists. We’ll talk about morphs below and discuss some of the most common examples.
- What Are Ball Python Morphs?
- The History of Morphs in Reptiles
- Patterns of Inheritance
- Do Morphs Cause Any Other Changes?
- List of the Most Common Ball Python Morphs
- Combinations: When One Morph Isn’t Enough
What Are Ball Python Morphs?
When hobbyists use the term “morph” they are usually referring to a snake (or some other animal) that possesses a genetic mutation that alters its appearance.
In some cases, these differences relate to colors. Albino (amelanistic) ball pythons, for example, display white colors where normal ball pythons would display black colors. In other cases, the morph alters the pattern of the snake. Some morphs, for example, bear striped patterns. Still others display colors and patterns that differ from normal ball pythons.
However, it is important to note that while many snakes display unusual color patterns, only those that are capable of passing the mutation on to their offspring should be called morphs. Those that cannot be passed on to a snake’s offspring simply represent non-heritable anomalies. Such snakes can still be attractive and make excellent pets, but they won’t produce offspring that demonstrate the same color pattern.
Many morphs are really attractive. And because they’re usually rare, morphs usually fetch higher prices than normal-looking ball pythons do. In some cases, these price differences can be substantial – many particularly rare morphs bear five-digit price tags.
However, there are also morphs that don’t look substantially different from normal ball pythons. They may simply be a slightly different shade of brown or possess slightly unusual markings. Some are even less attractive than normal ones (although beauty is obviously in the eye of the beholder).
But the point remains: Ball pythons who exhibit unusual colors or patterns that are associated with a heritable gene mutation qualify as morphs.
The History of Morphs in Reptiles
Most morphs lack the cryptic color patterns of their normal-looking counterparts, so oddly colored snakes often stand out in the habitat. Hawks and other sharp-eyed predators – including humans – are usually capable of spotting them with ease.
Accordingly, humans have probably come across unusually colored ball pythons and other snakes for millennia.
But instead of keeping these unusual critters as pets, early humans probably ate them. But over time, people began eating fewer snakes (although they still appear on menus around the world) and keeping more of them as pets. Eventually, a few morphs found their way into the hands of snake breeders, and captive lines were established.
The first mutation to become established in the hobby was probably the albino (amelanistic) corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus) gene.
The original animal was caught in North Carolina and bred 6 years later by Dr. Bernard Bechtel. But, because the amelanistic gene is passed along in simple recessive fashion, it wasn’t until these initial offspring were bred back to the father to produce what were likely the first captive-bred albino snakes in 1961.
Other mutations would follow, and by the 1980s, albino (amelanistic) common boas (Boa constrictor) and Burmese pythons (Python bivittatus) started making their way into the hands of breeders.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, ball python breeders were combing over shipments and looking out for unusual ball pythons. Several unusual genetic mutations were discovered during (and after) this time, but the first ball python morph to be produced in captivity was the albino (amelanistic) ball python line created by Bob Clark in 1992.
Since this time, dozens of other morphs have made their way into the hands of breeders (and some have spontaneously appeared in normal-looking lines). Modern ball python enthusiasts can choose from ball pythons clad in myriad colors and patterns.
Patterns of Inheritance
Different ball python morphs are passed on in different ways. It is important to understand these patterns of inheritance when shopping for your own ball python morph.
But first, you’ll need to learn three key terms:
- Allele – One of two or more versions of a gene located at the same place on a chromosome. For example, the albino (amelanistic) gene and the gene that produces melanin are alleles.
- Homozygous – Describes animals with two copies of the same allele. For example, animals that have two copies of the albino (amelanistic) gene are considered homozygous.
- Heterozygous – Describes animals that have two different alleles. Heterozygous animals may, for example, have one copy of the albino (amelanistic) gene and one copy that produces normal amounts of melanin.
With these definitions in mind, we can begin discussing the basic ways ball python mutations are passed on. Generally speaking, most morphs are inherited in one of four ways:
Simple recessive traits are only expressed when they occur in pairs. Albinism (amelanism), for example, is a simple recessive trait. This means that only those animals with both copies of the albino (amelanistic) gene will display the trait. Those with one or no copies of the albino (amelanistic) gene will look completely normal.
Dominant traits are displayed whenever the gene in question is present. The pinstripe morph is an example of a dominant trait in ball pythons. Any animal that gets a single copy of the pinstripe trait will look like a pinstripe. Conversely, normal appearing animals cannot have these genes.
Incomplete Dominant / Co-Dominant
Technically, the terms incomplete dominant and co-dominant refer to different types of inheritance, but they are often used interchangeably in herpetological contexts. Regardless of what you call them, these types of traits are displayed when a single copy of the gene is present.
However, when two copies of the mutated gene are present, the animal exhibits a “super” appearance, which is generally a more extreme version of the typical, heterozygous form.
Some traits, such as many of the striped appearances, are polygenetic, meaning that they are controlled by several different genes. These traits are more difficult to reproduce in a predictable fashion, so they’re rarely considered “morphs” by enthusiasts.
While you needn’t know the biological minutia involved in patterns of inheritance, it is important to understand the basics. If nothing else, the pattern of inheritance can help you understand the supply-and-demand principles that affect the price of different morphs.
For example, morphs passed on in incomplete dominant/co-dominant fashion often fall in price much more rapidly than those passed on in simple recessive fashion.
Do Morphs Cause Any Other Changes?
It is important to note that mutations affecting an animal’s color or pattern do not necessarily exist in a vacuum. And while most morphs seem to only affect the animal’s appearance, a few appear to trigger other effects too.
Some traits are also associated with behavioral changes. For example, some snakes that exhibit mutations adopt unusual postures or move in strange ways. Others may be tamer or more aggressive than their normally colored counterparts.
It’s not clear, in most cases, whether the gene responsible for the morph is the cause for these differences, or they are the result of other traits, that just so happen to occur in the same lines.
List of the Most Common Ball Python Morphs
- Albino (Amelanistic)
- Caramel Albino
- Yellow Belly
- Lesser Platinum / Butter
- Banana / Coral Glow
- Black Pastel
Now that you understand more about morphs and the way they’re passed on to their offspring, you’re ready to start learning about some of the most common morphs on the market.
Below, we detail some of the most common morphs available on the market. Note that in many cases, there are several different versions of a given morph.
For example, there are several different types of axanthic ball python. In most cases, these different lines are produced by different genes. This means that the genes are not compatible with each other. So, if you are trying to breed axanthic ball pythons, you’ll need to obtain breeding stock that both originate from the same (or compatible) lines.
In other cases, independent morphs may be compatible with each other. For example, Mojaves, lesser platinums, butters and Russo-line leucistics all have compatible genes. This means you can breed a Mojave to a lesser platinum to create a leucistic snake.
One of the first morphs to be established, the “albino” ball python (which is better described as being amelanistic) remains one of the most eye-catching morphs available. Albino ball pythons are unable to produce melanin – the brown to black pigment which makes typical ball pythons dark looking. The result is a yellow and white serpent with bright red eyes.
The amelanistic gene is passed on in simple recessive fashion, meaning that both parents must have at least one copy of the gene to produce amelanistic offspring.
Caramel (Tyrosinase Positive) Albino
The caramel ball python is a lavender, yellow, brown and cream snake with deep red eyes. The caramel morph is caused by a gene that causes amelanism, but unlike typical albinos, these snakes still produce tyrosinase – an enzyme involved in the production of melanin. Accordingly, they look quite a bit different than “normal” albinos.
The caramel gene is passed on in simple recessive fashion.
Piebald ball pythons are some of the most jaw-dropping animals in the entire reptile-keeping hobby. A simple recessive trait, the piebald gene causes snakes to exhibit large areas of normal pattern and coloration, which is broken up by large swaths of pure white skin.
Different individuals exhibit varying amounts of white coloration. Many of the most desirable individuals are largely white, with small, scattered areas of normal color and pattern.
Axanthic ball pythons don’t have xanthophores – the cells that produce yellow pigments. Accordingly, axanthic ball pythons have a pseudo-black-and-white appearance. While attractive in its own right, the axanthic gene is often used in conjunction with other morphs, to produce truly mind-blowing animals.
The axanthic morph is passed on in a simple recessive manner.
The pastel gene is either considered co-dominant or incompletely dominant, depending on the authority consulted. In either case, animals only need one copy of the gene to exhibit the trait, which gives the animals a somewhat hypomelanistic (reduced melanin) appearance. Pastel ball pythons are much brighter in color than typical ball pythons, and their reduced melanin can cause their pattern to look slightly different too.
Snakes that possess two copies of the pastel gene are typically called “super pastels,” and they are much brighter or lighter in color than typical pastels. The pastel gene is frequently combined with other genes to make designer snakes.
The spider morph is an interesting ball python mutation. Spider ball pythons often have slightly brighter colors than typical ball pythons, and they have reduced patterns, which contain larger brown or yellow patches and relatively thin black pattern elements. They also exhibit white speckling around their lateral-ventral borders.
The spider morph is inherited in some type of dominant fashion; animals only require one copy of the mutated gene to exhibit an altered appearance. However, no “super” form has ever been produced. Some breeders suspect that two copies of the gene prove fatal, while others simply think there is no “super” form (making it a dominant trait).
Spider ball pythons are used alongside several other mutations to create a number of designer snakes, such as the bumblebee spider (which is a combination of the pastel gene and the spider gene). However, it is important to note that the majority of snakes with the spider gene exhibit neurological issues, often known as the “spider wobble.”
Champagne ball pythons are quite striking looking, as they have extremely reduced patterns. In fact, aside from a subtle stripe down the back, champagnes don’t exhibit much else in the way of pattern.
The champagne ball python (which is also called the pastel champagne) is a co-dominant/incomplete dominant morph, but the super form of the mutation is thought to be lethal. It is often crossed with other co-dominant mutations to create designer snakes.
The cinnamon ball python mutation is another example of a co-dominant/incomplete dominant mutation.
Simple cinnamon ball pythons are a bit underwhelming to look at, as they essentially look like relatively dark (if contrasting) ball pythons. However, super cinnamon ball pythons are spectacular. Nearly patternless and clad in a rich dark brown color, super cinnamon ball pythons always catch eyes and drop jaws.
The fire morph is a co-dominant/incomplete dominant trait. Fire (or fireball) ball pythons who have only one copy of the gene are relatively normal-looking snakes, although their golden tones are especially satiny and their dark pattern elements feature warm, rich hues.
But the real appeal of fire ball pythons is largely thanks to the super form of the morph. Individuals with two copies of the gene appear almost completely white (leucistic) and bear black eyes.
Mojave ball pythons exhibit different colors and a unique pattern, which differs from that of normal ball pythons. They often display strongly contrasting black and gold markings, and the “alien heads” that are typically present on the sides of normal ball pythons are often split into separate markings. Mojaves also have completely white, patternless bellies.
The Mojave morph is a co-dominant/incomplete dominant mutation. Animals with a single copy of the gene display the Mojave aesthetic, but those with two copies of the gene appear as completely white animals with blue eyes.
The ghost ball python morph is an example of hypomelanism. Unlike amelanistic (albino) animals, who produce no melanin, ghosts simply produce less melanin than usual. A simple recessive trait, the ghost morph only appears in animals that have two copies of the gene.
Ghost ball pythons vary significantly in appearance, but most look “hazy” with muted colors. In fact, they’re often described as looking like they’re always in a shed cycle.
The yellow belly morph is a co-dominant/incomplete dominant mutation, which causes ball pythons to exhibit some very subtle differences in color and pattern. They typically have unmarked bellies (which may or may not have a yellow wash), and their light-colored pattern elements often have washes of red or yellow.
However, the super form of the yellow belly ball python is quite striking. Called the ivory ball python, these relatively patternless snakes are peach-colored and possess dark black eyes.
Lesser Platinum / Butter
The butter morph and the lesser platinum morph are both very similar-looking mutations, but they appear to be different traits. Nevertheless, they’re both compatible and produce blue-eyed leucistic animals when bred together (in any combination).
Essentially, snakes with one copy of either gene look like high contrast, very brightly colored ball pythons. This is an co-dominant/incomplete dominant mutation.
Pinstripe ball pythons are a very eye-catching morph. They exhibit relatively typical coloration, but they have very reduced dark pattern elements, which creates the overall impression of a yellow or straw-colored snake, with thin, dark lines and markings.
Pinstripe is an example of a dominant mutation. This means that animals possessing two copies of the mutated gene look identical to those who only have one copy.
The clown morph is a simple-recessive mutation that causes changes in the typical color and pattern of ball pythons. Clown ball pythons vary in appearance quite a bit. The best examples of the morph bear very bright, crisp, high-contrast coloration and an extremely reduced, atypical pattern. Most clown ball pythons also have relatively pattern-free heads.
On the other hand, some individuals appear similar to normal ball pythons, with slightly warmer coloration and subtle differences in pattern.
The scaleless ball python morph is relatively new, and as such, there’s a lot about it we don’t yet understand. A few scaleless ball pythons have been produced, but several have exhibited troubling health problems.
Some scaleless ball pythons are almost entirely free of scales, while others have a reduced number of scales. Some have scales on the bulk of their bodies, while not possessing any on the head. They typically exhibit normal coloration and pattern elements.
Banana / Coral Glow
The coral glow and banana ball python morphs are not entirely understood at the moment. It isn’t even clear whether or not they are the same mutation or if they’re different, but compatible, mutations. The mutation also appears to be sex-linked, further complicating matters.
Regardless of the way the mutation is inherited, the result is the same: a stunning, high-contrast, yellow, orange and lavender snake. Many develop small black dots along their bodies as they age.
The black pastel mutation doesn’t look particularly impressive – most black pastel snakes look like slightly darker normal ball pythons, but with pretty sharp contrast between the black and brown pattern elements. They actually look pretty similar to cinnamon ball pythons, although they’re two completely different mutations.
The mutation is co-dominant/incomplete dominant, and the super form appears as a very dark animal with a patternless, white belly.
Combinations: When One Morph Isn’t Enough
The 18 mutations described above are all beautiful and interesting in their own right, but many hobbyists and breeders enjoy combining more than one mutation in the same snake. This doesn’t always yield anything particularly special, but some combinations produce results that are nothing short of breathtaking.
Often, the first breeder to combine two morphs will name the resulting combination. We’ve listed some of the most notable combinations and their names below.
- Bumblebee Ball Python – Pastel x Spider
- Killer Bee — Super Pastel x Spider
- Pewter Ball Python – Pastel x Cinnamon
- Lemon Blast Ball Python – Pastel x Pinstripe
- Panda Pied Ball Python – Super Black Pastel X Piebald
- Pastel Ivory Ball Python – Pastel x Ivory (Super Yellowbelly)
- Firefly Ball Python – Fire x Pastel
- Killer Clown Ball Python – Clown x Super Pastel
- Monsoon Ball Python – Super Pastel x Super Mojave
- Albino Pinstripe – Albino x Pinstripe
Of course, there are literally thousands of different ways ball python breeders could combine various traits, so a complete list of combinations is beyond the scope of this article. Just understand that there is virtually no end to the possibilities of ball python morph combinations!
I haven’t personally worked with many ball python morphs, although I did maintain a small colony of pastel ball pythons years ago. However, I did work extensively with a few carpet python (Morelia spilota ssp.) morphs, and I dabbled with leopard gecko (Eublepharis macularius) morphs when I first became interested in reptiles.
So, I definitely understand the appeal they have. And while I often prefer normal-looking snakes to those clad in gaudy colors, I definitely think some of the mutations on the market are very attractive – the pinstripe and desert morphs are two of my favorites.
But some of the most attractive ball pythons, in my opinion, are those that feature two or more mutations. I think the caramel glow ball python, for example, is a glorious looking animal.
Tell us about your favorite ball python morphs in the comments below.wo of my favorites.
But some of the most attractive ball pythons, in my opinion, are those that feature two or more mutations. I think the caramel glow ball python, for example, is a glorious looking animal.
Tell us about your favorite ball python morphs in the comments below.