1 : something that you want very much but that is very hard to get.
2 : an object or goal that is sought after for its great significance.
3: a ball python project that will change the world.
Over the years the term “Holy Grail” has been used by herpetoculture to describe undiscovered dream genes. We fantasized about the possibilities of a white ball python and called it the Holy Grail. When the first Piebald ball pythons started appearing from Africa we said that would be a Holy Grail project if it could be reproduced. A Scaleless Ball Python is latest in the category of Holy Grail projects for the ball game.
In the beginning of the Ball Game, when Bob Clark started propagating the first Albino Ball Pythons in 1992, we had no idea what was in store for us. At that time we did not know it but we were working with the first Holy Grail project. Then, in 1997, Pete Kahl produced the first Piebald Ball Pythons. I still remember driving to Daytona with the goal of buying my first Piebald. On that drive it was incredible to contemplate that my dreams of someday owning a Piebald were only a few short hours away. I acquired my first Pied and I will never forget the feeling I had on the drive home with my new prize safely on my lap. In 2002, a photo appeared on the internet of a white ball python with jet black eyes. This was the first Black Eyed Leucistic. We discovered that the heterozygous animals(later to be named Fires) were responsible for creating the Black Eyed Leucistic. Within a few weeks we had negotiated a deal to acquire the first Fires to be brought into the United States. This was one of those pivotal, life changing moments. This was my first experience being in on the very beginning of one of these Holy Grail projects. A white ball python had been the Holy Grail on most serious breeders’ lists since the beginning and now it was all becoming manifest. It was going to be possible for us to reproduce white ball pythons!
Fast forward to 2013, Brian Barczyk produces an episode of SnakeBytes announcing something that will change the world. Brian showed us the hatching of the first, proven genetically reproducible, Scaleless Ball Pythons and it was a dream come true for me. This snake was everything we had hoped it would be, purely scaleless with smooth skin and stark contrasting pattern. Another Holy Grail, possibly the last Holy Grail had just been realized and I knew I had to be part of it. This was my destiny. Sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? This is what these kinds of projects do to you. Well, maybe I can’t speak for you, but this is what a Holy Grail project does for me. These projects get under my skin. I dream about them, obsess over them and when the project is realized, it is responsible for much of my joy during hatch season. To this day, early in the morning, before the employees arrive to work, I will go into the incubator and just marvel. I find myself still admiring Albinos, Piebalds and Black Eyed Leucistics. The latest multi-gene combination is nice but there is just something about these Holy Grail projects for me. It’s not only the beauty but the history of how they changed the game.
I have dreamt about having a Scaleless Ball Python since I fist started working with the Scaleless Corn Snakes. These smooth skinned, scaleless snakes are some of the coolest creatures that I have worked with but Python regius is my favorite and I knew I would never be satisfied until we had this gene in the ball python. I thought it should be possible because ball pythons seem to share many of the same genes with corn snakes. So the Scaleless Ball Python was a quick addition to my mental Holy Grail list. Then I noticed something. It was the last one. There was not another gene on my list of Holy Grail ball pythons. We better make the most of this one.
The Last Big Gene
Many of us who have been playing the game for a long time have openly been calling this gene the “Last Big Gene”. I cannot imagine a gene coming along that will have the paramount importance that genes like Albino, Piebald, Leucistic and now Scaleless have. So, I guess we are saying this is the last gene on the Holy Grail list. It does not mean that the game is over or that when this gene runs its course we are finished. It means that, the Scaleless, is most likely the last game changing gene we can hope to be discovered. While at times it has seemed that a new ball python gene comes along every day, these big genes are not discovered very often. In fact, they seem to come along about once every five years. There are still many genes to work with and many combinations yet to create, but no single gene is likely to be discovered that belongs on the “Holy Grail” list, at least none that I can think of. So when we say this is the “Last Big Gene”, we mean it. The Scaleless is the last big investment, single gene we are likely to see and the discovery of this gene is bringing about massive changes in the industry as people change their breeding plans and make adjustments for this new development.
The Dream Becomes Reality
When I fist heard that Brian at BHB had hatched a Scaleless Ball Python it was like I had willed the moment into existence. Now before you start thinking I am more crazy than you probably already do, hear me out. I was telling my friends last year that I was going to have a Scaleless Ball Python by the end of the year. I am a big believer in the power of positive thinking. It has served me well over the years and it is the secret to my success. I simply believe that I will succeed or that I will hit my odds or that I will have a Scaleless Ball Python by the end of the year and somehow it happens. I believe it so strongly that I am almost delusional in my belief. There have been countless books written about this and in my experience it really works. Since I started thinking this way several years ago, things just seem to go my way. So, when people ask me what I attribute my success to, I tell them mostly just because I believe that I will be successful. It is not magic, I have to work hard too, but when you combine hard work with positive thinking, it does almost seem like magic. I mean, why last year? Why did I start believing that I would have a Scaleless Ball Python and it happened the very same year? The moment I heard that Brian had hatched a Scaleless Ball Python from some co-dominant Scaleless Head animals, I was on the phone making my dreams come true. I invested an obscene amount of money in this project in order to get an exclusive deal with Brian for the first year he was releasing them. Brian agreed and I acquired 3 Scaleless Head animals in 2013.
I have heard some controversy from a few people about the nature of a gene that removes the scales from a snake. They say it is not natural or that we are creating a mutant snake. My response to this argument is that none of these genes are natural and the entire premise of the ball game is reproducing mutant ball pythons. Very few of the genetic traits that we work with, at least the important ones, would result in animals that survive very long in the wild. A white snake would not be able to hunt and would be the easy victim of predation. I have heard the argument that scales are the snake’s armor and therefore we should not reproduce animals without their armor. For years we have used genes to change the pattern of ball pythons without these purist objections. The pattern of a ball python is designed to provide these snakes with camouflage and is no less important than scales to the ultimate survival of a ball python in the wild. The people making these arguments either have a fundamental misunderstanding of what the ball game is or they are just willfully ignorant because they know that the price of these gems is out of reach for them. Either motivation only requires this cursory response. By the time the Scaleless genes have run their course and become part of the mainstream, the objections being made now will seem as silly as the people who objected to reproducing the first albinos at the beginning of the game. The fact is that Scaleless snakes thrive in captivity where they are provided an easy meal and are safe from predators. We even fed our Scaleless Corn Snakes live meals and there was not a single incident where the snake was injured from a rodent bite. These constrictors are formidable predators with evolutionary skills that keep them from receiving rodent bites during constriction. Scales offer some protection that is largely irrelevant to a captive snake. No one would argue that camouflage is necessary in a captive environment. I maintain that scales are no different in a captive setting where we protect our snakes and provide them with easy meals.
Scaleless – The Most Powerful Gene.
When you remove the scales from a reptile it changes the way that pigment appears to our eyes. The light reflects differently because of the scales and the pattern looks more jagged. I am sure that the pigment on the skin is the same as a scaled animal, but with the scales removed we are left with really clean lines of color. The snake looks fake, like a painting. The pattern looks very much like it is tattooed on the snake. The color appears like ink under the skin. I can imagine many new names that borrow terms from the tattoo industry as this new gene is marketed. For a community that regularly use terms like “genetic art” to describe our creations, having a gene like this is tremendously powerful. For some and I will be honest I fell into this category, we were becoming a little bored. As we piled gene upon gene often we were left with a less appealing creation. This general malaise that had enveloped much of the community was tough to shake at times. I mean we still love the snakes and love what we do, but the buzz was fading for many of us. Now, with this new Scaleless gene, the future for creating new ball pythons is very exciting again. We can now imagine how these new clean lines will look as we change the color and pattern with our other genes. Another factor that makes the scaleless so appealing is the fact that much of an animal’s darkening comes from the scales. If you look at a baby pastel, for instance. The snake is basically black and yellow except for some dark pigment lurking at the end of each scale. This darkening becomes more pronounced as the snake ages. With no scales, we should be left with a high contrast, black and yellow snake that remains black and yellow for the life of the snake! Look at the picture of this Pastel Scaleless Head I produced this year. Study the areas where the scales are missing on the nose. That black and yellow skin is what we can expect the whole snake to look like.
Now extrapolate the simple pastel to a Piebald or a Banana or an Axanthic. We do not have to rely only on our imaginations. We can see what this gene is capable of by looking at the corn snakes. They have some of the most spectacular colors and with no scales breaking up the clean lines of pattern or holding darker pigment, we are left with a true work of art. I included some of the corn snake photos as well to demonstrate what the future will look like for ball pythons with this project.
So assuming that you are convinced that Scaleless Ball Pythons are the “wave of the future” for the ball game, where do you go from here? First it is important to note that we currently know of three genes in this latest category of scale manipulation. One we know will produce a scaleless ball python and two that may produce a scaleless ball python, something similar or something completely different.
This is the line that I am working with. When I acquired my animals last year, this line was the only choice. If I had to make the decision with the current information and could only choose one of the three, I would still opt for the one that has proven to make my dream homozygous. I have never been much of a gambler when it comes to ball python genes. Throughout my career, I have mostly chosen to go with a proven entity rather than risk my hard earned money on speculation. Speculating with ball pythons can be very lucrative and many successful breeders have made fortunes speculating with ball pythons. I usually wait to see what great thing a gene produces and then invest in the project and if it doesn’t, then I don’t. This philosophy has cost me some world’s first production but I think it has been more profitable for me. Before Brian produced the homozygous Scaleless, we had a short conversation about the possibility of me taking a chance with an unproven (at the time) Scaleless Head. We both decided it would be in our interest to wait just the few short weeks until he proved the gene would do what we hoped. It did and the rest is history as they say. Brian produced two homozygous Scaleless Ball Pythons that look exactly like we hoped. The heterozygous animals are mostly normal with the exception of a varying amount of scales missing from the head and sometimes extending to the nose. There are some tiny, bead-like scales around the scaleless areas on the head that appear like half formed scales. Other than that the Scaleless Heads are completely normal in every way including the ventral scales which are completely normal.
This is a new gene that Kevin/NERD(with his partner) are working with and has produced for the first time this year. In my opinion this is something totally different than the animals that Brian and I are working with. Kevin also agrees that the Micro Scale project is different from the BHB Scaleless Head project. Guess what? That is a good thing. This gives us a whole other gene to work with that has the exciting potential of a different homozygous altogether. Besides the commonality of scales missing from the head, the heterozygous are different. The snakes from this line have micro beaded scales throughout the body. On some of the animals the ventral scales look like a zipper coming up the belly. The mind boggles with possibilities of what the homozygous could be. It will be exciting to see how this project develops and with Kevin in charge we are likely to see some cool combos in the future. As we know Kevin likes to protect his projects and this will be no different. After speaking with Kevin I can tell he is super excited about this one. It will be interesting to see if the homozygous is something desirable and I wish them the best on showing what this gene will do.
Winston has an interesting story about the origin of his line that conjures images of finding a winning lotto ticket on the ground. Last year Winston heard about a couple of ball pythons that were described as having stuck sheds on their heads. Having visited BHB several times and seeing the scaleless heads, Winston decided to go to the person’s house to have a look. Although the sheds were indeed stuck, Winston was savvy enough to take a chance and purchase the project consisting of a couple animals with some scales missing from their heads. Winston is speculating that his line will also produce a scaleless homozygous but told me that he does not believe that his heterozygous female will produce this year. If she does not produce, the project will unfortunately remain unproven until 2015. After speaking at length with him about his plans for the project he seems to me to be understandably excited about the potential. Winston himself seems to believe implicitly that proving the homozygous is just a formality. I believe that his animals look very promising and it is really cool to hear the enthusiasm of someone with a new project who may be on the threshold of finding out he has something really big. I wish him the best.
Some Scaleless Heads are being counterfeited
Snakes being counterfeited? That’s a first. It has happened before although not to the extent we are likely to see it with this gene. Through the years I have seen many scams, cons, rip-offs or whatever you want to call them in the ball game. When money is involved there will be rip-offs. I have purchased more than my fair share of fake heterozygous animals over the years. I even bought a 10 lot of possible het Pieds from a very well known breeder. All of them had the “markers” for het Pied and I figure I am bound to hit on some right? Wrong. To this day I have never made a single Pied from any of those girls despite multiple breedings with a homozygous Pied male. A good friend of mine had the same experience with the same breeder. It was the perfect scam. They were possible hets so we could not claim anything. This was during the time that the “marker” had first been discovered. We were buying possible hets to save some money. We later found out that not all heterozygous pieds have the “marker” but when they do have the “marker” and they come from a Pied breeding, they are always hets. So these animals were never even possible hets to begin with. They could not have even come from a Pied breeding. So much time has passed it does not really matter anymore, but it taught me a valuable lesson. My point in telling you all of this is that people will lie to you to take your money. Yes, even in the ball game. I do not take anyone’s word that something is what they say anymore. I want proof. Do you think for one second that someone won’t tell you what you want to hear in order to part you with $50k?
Another time I was sent photos of some “Piebald Boa Constrictors”. The story sounded good, they just popped up in a litter. The photo looked a little strange but it did not look fake. To me it looked like the animals themselves could have been painted. The “red flag” for me was that the non-white areas were completely normal for a boa. The Piebald genes we had in other species all changed the pattern on the normal areas. This was one of the reasons I was so confident when I bought the first Pied Reticulated Python. Using this photo of the boas and a good story, these people were able to con my friend out a significant amount of money. He wanted the story to be true so badly that I think he overlooked some red flags and took the gamble.
When these big projects are discovered and marketed it is inevitable that people will start trying to find a short cut to get in them. The confidence men know this is a opportune time for them to part you with your cash. The worst part is that we have never had a gene that is so easy to fake. I mean an Albino is an Albino, right. There has been history of people soaking ball pythons in cool-aid to make them red or blue but that was pretty obvious. Fake heterozygous animals have been sold since the beginning.
The problem with the Scaleless Head and a story like Winston’s is that people do not realize how rare it is to really find something that turns out to be the real deal. People will assume since Winston apparently has found one one that seems to be genetic, there must be more, right? Probably not. I spoke with Bill Brant who has been one of the largest importers of baby ball pythons in the world. Bill says that in his career he imported an estimated 350,000 ball pythons. In all that time he found 1 that resembled a Scaleless Head. Even that one turned out to be different than the BHB line. The one snake that Bill found is the Micro Scale that Kevin is currently working with.
So finding a true genetic scaleless head is not likely to happen. Coincidentally, since the scaleless heads were revealed there have been dozens of photos sent to me and many other people. If a Scaleless Head is worth $50k and someone comes to you with a ball python missing some scales from its head offering it for $5k, why not take a gamble? Here’s why? Because people are mutilating snakes hoping they will get your money by cutting the scales off the top of the snake’s head. Oh, they will tell you everything you want to hear. They will tell you it hatched out and has always been this way or that she’s been in my collection for years I just never noticed. They might say “ah shucks, I’m not really sure what it could be but it is missing the scales from the head”. These are the things that all good scams share in common. They play to the natural human tendency toward wanting to get something for nothing. They might even say, “I sent a pic to Mike and he confirmed it”. By far the most successful one is likely to be “It just came in from Africa.” I expect them to start manufacturing “scaleless heads” in Africa. You know the saying “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”? Take that to heart, realize that true genetic mutations are exceedingly rare. If you do not play ball, this will stop! More importantly as this is exposed, it will not even get started in earnest.
There are not just a few scales missing from the head in the legitimate Scaleless Heads. There are also small, bead-like scales around the head and the scaleless area. This is important so please read this a spread the word. Study the macro shot photos I took for you. I want to make it very clear that there has never been a scaleless head produced that does not also have the bead like scales. I would even say that after this information is widely disseminated, the scammers might even try to delicately cut a few scales in half. They might try to make a more accurate fake instead of the more obvious ones from the photos I have received. The scarification seen in the photos below does not occur in a true Scaleless Head. Perhaps you do not care if the gene is proven or not. You should care how the animal was produced. If it was produced at the end of a scalpel, that should sicken you.
I am not making any direct accusations about the creators of these photos because I did not witness anyone removing the scales from the snakes. I am saying that these snakes appear to have had the scales removed from their head wether by direct mutilation or by accident. It is more important than ever to not speculate on this project. Buying snakes just because they have some scales missing from the top of their heads is not only a fools game, it could encourage and fund animal cruelty. Mutilated snakes will never produce a scaleless ball python.
I do not believe that we will see legitimate Scaleless Heads popping up in African shipments like we did with the yellow bellies, for example. This is not just wishful thinking on my part. I have gone through tens of thousands of imported ball pythons. I have found many yellow bellies. Brian Barczyk used to import tens of thousands of baby ball pythons from Africa. In all that time, he found one scaleless head and I found none. Bill imported 350,000 and found 1. These are long odds. You are not even going to find one in your unopened bags of ball pythons.
Who Cares About A Few Missing Scales?
The point of the few scales missing from the heads of Scaleless Heads is the genetic marker indicating that the animal is heterozygous for the desirable outcome of a purely scaleless homozygous animal. Obviously this is not our final objective, but it is nice to be able to pick the heterozygous animals from the clutch. It saves time and keeps devaluing possible hets out of the equation. Aside from the fakes there are also some completely innocent occurrences where the scales seem to simply fall off the head. These are not true Scaleless Heads and they are not the marker for genetic scaleless animals. These animals have sloughed off patches of scales for some reason but are likely not a genetic marker for anything. Below are a couple of photos. The first is a picture of a snake that was offered to me for $500 right after the news of the Scaleless Heads came out. While the investment was low, after inspecting the animal in person, I gave the guy gas money and passed on it. It just looked like it was some other problem and I could not imagine it being genetic. After hearing that my friend purchased the animal for twice that price I wish I could have my gas money back.
This snake was sold to another breeder whom I know. I was told that the scales came back after a few sheds. So, as I suspected, this snake is completely normal.
Another friend of mine had a Pied that randomly lost the scales from its head. He caused a little stir at the same time proving a point by posting this photo on Facebook. People assumed it was the real deal. He did this to help illustrate the folly in not treating the Scaleless like a true recessive project. Chasing any snake with scales missing from the head will just frustrate you and confuse the market. If our goal is to use the scaleless head as a marker to know the genetics of homozygous production, then obtaining a snake that does not carry those genetics is not a worthwhile pursuit. The photo below is my friend’s snake and it actually looks almost authentic. Although we know that the snake will never produce a scaleless ball python it looks very similar to the true scaleless heads.
The Look-alike genes
We as a community have had a lot of experience in the past with genes that appear exactly the same in heterozygous form but produce an entirely different homozygous phenotype. When we brought the fist Fires into the US in 2003, the white ball python was the “Holy Grail” for the ball game at that time. The Fires were expensive. After all they should be, producing a white ball python had been only a dream but was now within our grasp except that it cost $40,000 for a Fire. So, people started scouring African shipments looking for anything that looked like a Fire. Some found them and made claims of having Fires. Some did not claim that they had Fires, but that they had the same thing and their line of Fire would still make the coveted Black Eyed Leucistic. From my memory, there was the Vanilla, Disco, Thunder, Lucifer, Sulpher, Ember, Lemon Back and Flame. Over half of that list did not ultimately produce a white snake despite sharing an identical or almost identical phenotype in the heterozygous.
When the Black Eyed Leucistic was the Holy Grail and people were searching high and low for Fires to avoid the $40k price tag, there were many instances of people showing me animals that they believed were Fires. I distinctly remember being at the National Reptile Expo in Daytona when another breeder came up to my table and said “Hey I think I have a Fire”. When he showed me his “Fire” my stomach sank and I thought to myself, “He does have a fire”. At that time we had little experience with look-alike genes and I believed, like most, that if it appeared the same in heterozygous form it would likely produce the same homozygous. This breeder named the gene Thunder. He proved it was genetic, breeding it to a normal and producing 50% of the babies that looked like the Thunders/Fires. I now think that gene was probably most similar to a Vanilla which was another gene that looked very similar in it’s heterozygous state to a Fire. Both of those genes did not produce a white snake. How could this be? I mean the heterozygous animals were almost identical to the Fire. Then we had the Disco which in my opinion is identical to a Fire. I simply cannot tell those two genes apart. The Disco produces a still different homozygous animal that is also not a white snake. The history of the ball game is now replete with accounts of genes that were thought to be exactly the same thing and when the homozygous animals were produced, the speculation was proven wrong.
With the Yellow Belly there has been similar speculation that has been proven wrong. The Gravel is identical to the Yellow Belly but does not produce an Ivory. The Spark, the Asphalt and the Spector are all close enough to make distinguishing them from one another very difficult.
The Phantom and the Mystic do not produce a homozygous that is a white snake as most expected. That was the most obvious hypothesis to make after those genes produced white snakes with their allelic counterparts. Our assumptions were proven wrong and the Super Phantom was something completely different than we expected.
We now know that it is possible for some genes to be what we call allelic. They occur on the same allele causing heterozygous animals that appear identical to one another but since the genes are not exactly the same, the homozygous offspring are radically different. The difference between a white snake and a normal. We did not even know this was possible back when the look-alike fires were being marketed.
My point is that no one, regardless of their knowledge, reputation, experience or sales ability can know that they have a gene identical to another until they prove it is the same by producing an identical homozygous. To be clear, I am not asserting that any of these lines will not prove out and I wish everyone the best. I hope they all three produce different homozygous animals because it will give us more genes to work with. I am giving you the facts. What you choose to do with that information is up to you.
The Last Holy Grail
The cold, hard fact is, no matter where you fall on the scaleless debate, If you want to continue in the Ball Game, you will have to invest in the Scaleless project at some point. This is the future of the ball game. The question for any serious player is not if they will be in the scaleless ball python projects, but when. That all depends on what level of investment you are comfortable making. As with any new project, the sooner you establish yourself, the more return you will likely make over the life of the project.
This is an exciting time for the Ball Game. We have a Scaleless Ball Python, the last Holy Grail, and we know how to reproduce it . I feel very blessed to be working with a species that always seems to come through. Every time they say there are no more game changing genes we find another one. This time we might just have three.
After reading this article many people will wonder why I did not include Banana/Coral Glow in the Holy Grail genes. Banana/Coral Glow was an important gene. Pastel was one of the most important genes because it was our first experience with co-dominance. These are important genes. For the purposes of this article, I consider a gene a Holy Grail when we thought about it before it existed. We never saw Banana/Coral Glow coming and therefore I do not consider it a Holy Grail gene. My world here, my rules. Ha!