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A Snake with a Rough Background

In this case, the title has a dual meaning; our feature today is not only a bit of a mystery when it comes to his genetics, but he's also recently had it rough thanks to an unfortunate incident that came with a new arrival. While the species is anything but uncommon, this individual is quite odd where appearances are concerned; this, is Dreamer:

One of my older photos of Dreamer when he was young, showing off almost the full breadth of his odd colors and patterns.

The corn snake, Pantherophis guttatus, is one of the most popular pet snakes on the market, and for good reason: they're a moderate size, not tiny but also not huge (most of the time; my first snake was a snow corn who pushed well over 5 1/2 feet, and the record is over 6), come in a myriad of standard and mutation-based color forms, and the vast majority of them have a docile, curious personality that, alongside their easy care, makes them great for beginners and long-time keepers alike. The species is native to the southeastern US, ranging from as far north as New Jersey all the way south to the tip of the Florida Keys and west to Louisiana (where they give way to their close relatives the Slowinski's ratsnake, and even further west the Great Plains ratsnake, two animals once considered subspecies or mere variants of the corn), and they can be found in just about any habitat through that region. Generalist feeders, they'll take primarily rodents, but also love lizards, small birds, eggs, and sometimes even amphibians.

The corn snake got its name from two different sources; one, they were often found around grain silos and feed lots where their favorite foods would hang out, and two, the belly pattern of the standard wild types are checkered in a way that makes it look like Indian corn. They're also nicknamed the red ratsnake on account of the standard color, backgrounds of gray to yellow or bright orange with orange to brick red saddles, marked by black borders. Corns are perhaps second only to the ball python in the number of genetic or polymophic mutations/morphs now known however, and Dreamer here sports not only several known mutations, but potentially several unknowns as well (which might be proven out soon, as he's finally had a chance to get paired with my current female, the daughter of my first snake).

Dreamer splayed out across my arm; he's just recently reached sexual maturity, though will likely keep growing for quite some time before slowing down.

Two of the most common mutations seen are standard recessive traits: amelanism (often wrongly called albinism; they still possess red and yellow pigments, and so are not truly albinos) and anerythrism. Dreamer likely carries the former as a hidden recessive gene, and expresses the latter, with the erythrin pigment responsible for his red colors not present and so leaving him with a background of primarily grays with the common side wash of yellow. He also is probably sporting a pattern mutation known as motley, another recessive gene that takes the normal dorsal saddle pattern and either connects the edges to make spots of background color down the spine or creates a "q-tip" pinstripe pattern with a broad uneven stripe of background color down the back between dorsal saddle borders (he's probably got the latter variant going on). It also is one of several mutations that gets rid of belly pattern, so he doesn't sport that Indian corn look, rather a nearly clean white belly with no pattern at all.

Beyond this, what exactly is making Dreamer look the way he does is rather up for question. Normal anerythristic, or anery, corns, tend to have stark light gray and deep to black color contrasts between the background and saddles, but though motley also often lightens the color, he's lighter still than that, awash in pale pastel grays. This may be hypomelanism, removing some of the black pigment and making him what is called a "ghost" corn, but as he also exhibits a notable touch of pink in his scales, it may instead be a sister gene to hypo, known as "strawberry," which does almost the same thing but "pinks up" the colors to some extent. Dreamer's pattern is also somewhat odd even for a motley, as often once the motley pattern breaks, normal dorsal saddles or something similar continue down the back from the break point. Not always, but as beyond his pattern break he retains an almost perfect pairing of blotches down either side of his spine right to the tip of his tail, he may also be exhibiting a dominant trait known as Tessera, which creates stripes down the back and a "pixelated" mottled pattern on the sides. Motley of course wipes out that side pattern, so the only way to know for sure is to breed him. Being a dominant gene, Tessera will show up immediately in half of his babies, give or take; if there's just motley, either the female needs to carry that gene or all the babies will be normally patterned. Naturally, I'm hoping he's got Tessera in him.

Tessera also has a tendency to enhance the flush of yellow on the sides of the corn snake; normally it's present on only roughly the first third to half of the snake, but in Dreamer, that yellow is brilliant lemon up front and fades but sticks around almost to his tail, where, surprisingly, it shows up again under his tail!

Dreamer's side, showing off both that missing pattern laterally and that brilliant yellow he has going on.

Naturally, I'm hoping that his first pairing with my female was successful and that the babies that result will tell more about what's going on in his genes, but it's also a roll of the dice since half of what I'm testing for, there's a fair chance that Midnight is not a carrier of (she's a normal anery, carrying amelanism, but so far I don't know anything more about her genetic background). However, even the chance to test that little bit that I know about in the two of them was almost nonexistent, as recently there was an unfortunate rough spot with several of my animals, and Dreamer was one of the ones caught up in it.

Those who follow this blog, or especially my other social media accounts, might remember a while back (all the way back in July, actually...) the post about my two Lake Chapala garter snakes and all the photos that accompanied them. As it turned out, the snake featured there as the "male" turned out to be another female, so I set up a trade to get her switched out with an actual male so that I could get a proper pair and, eventually, some babies going. Well, as it turned out, that male was hiding a latent parasitic infection of some sort, that didn't make itself known until several weeks after he came in. Since he was focused on the female he was around, I didn't think much at first of his lack of interest in food, especially since only 2 weeks after arriving he did eat once for me. Lack of eating soon paired with some...let's say not-normal waste products, however, which then came with blood showing up. By this point it was obvious something was wrong, and I was on the phone trying to get a vet appointment set up. Thanks to both the COVID pandemic making things hard and the usual winter onslaught of pet health problems for animals of all kinds though, the appointment took a couple weeks to arrange, and by that point the male had already passed, and my female garter was getting sick too. I tried to treat her with the medication that was prescribed, but unfortunately it was too little, too late.

Let this be a lesson for others to learn from: with reptiles, the moment that something starts seeming wrong, get them checked out, and push for a quick vet arrangement. They get sick quick (or more so, don't show that anything really seems wrong until the illness has really progressed), and often get dead even quicker afterward. And be thorough in describing symptoms and asking for tests (and be ready for that vet bill; a check-up, medications, bloodwork, etc. will often cost several hundred dollars if not more). I'm still working on getting the costs for these guys back too, and this was even part of what prompted me to set up a Patreon account for Carlton Carnivores, to help make sure finances would be around to cover vet trips. Finding supporters, unfortunately, has started slow there...but we still try.

That cute face was uncomfortably close to not being around anymore...

Now, how does the sick garter snakes mess involve Dreamer? Well, as many reptile keepers know it's often common practice that, if one snake doesn't want a mouse, you give it to someone else who won't refuse it. Before I knew that the garters were sick, one of the mice that I had offered to the male that was refused I turned around and offered to Dreamer, and he of course had no qualms about taking it. In a collection where everyone is healthy, this isn't a problem of course, but the garter had happened to touch the mouse, worse even he pooped in the cage and then crawled past it and I didn't see that before giving the mouse over, so whatever the garters had managed to make it over to Dreamer. He began showing symptoms a few weeks later (unhealthy wastes and then refusal to eat), but luckily at that point I knew something was seriously wrong from the experience with the garters, and so when the sick corn went to get checked up, the whole history of the incident went with it and he was getting seen a lot sooner than they had managed to be.

A hard answer was never achieved for the cause (though my current suspicions rest on some sort of cyst-making protozoan based on the garter fecal results and the medication used at least doing something for the illness), but once medication was had (an orally applied fluid that Dreamer was not at all happy about taking, no surprise), Dreamer rapidly improved. After the medication was done, I waited week, after week, after week, watching for signs of problems to reappear, but nothing came on. Dreamer's appetite returned in full shortly after being medicated, and he's had no problems at all in the months since. In part, this might also be due to the rather hardy nature of corns; among snakes, garters are known for being somewhat notably susceptible to illnesses especially if they're carrying something and their environment changes, and so losing them was sad, but not necessarily shocking with how quickly their illness progressed. Corn snakes on the other hand can often push forward for quite some time before getting really sick from parasites or pathogens they're exposed to (not that they should be; a good quarantine coming in, regular cleaning of cages and furniture, and careful management and observation of the animals they have any sort of contact with should always be paramount, but unintended accidents do happen no matter how hard we try to avoid them).

So though there was a tragedy that occurred, it could also have been even worse, and lessons were learned that can be applied to similar issues should, God forbid, they appear again in the future. Dreamer is healthy and happy once more, and neither he nor any of the other animals in the collection have since shown any signs of illness, so here's hoping that from here forward things will stay okay. With him in the clear, Dreamer is now able to have a chance at being a father himself too, as mentioned earlier; not only will I maybe finally have a chance to tell what all goes into his pattern, but he's also helping carry on a now 21 year legacy; his mate being my first snake's daughter, he'll help make grandkids for dear departed (and dearly missed) Frosty.

Here's to that Dream, in the making....

Stay healthy Dreamer, and bring new miracles with you in the future.

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Jeff Koelewyn
Jeff Koelewyn
Apr 19, 2021

great photos and beautifully written😀

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