If you have seen a ghostly white snake with red eyes in a recent zoo exhibit, you may have just seen a snake born with albinism. Albinism is a genetic anomaly which causes animals to be unable to produce normal amounts of melanin. Without melanin, you can’t have normal skin pigmentation, or any at all. You can have an albino snake in almost any species – snakes, alligators, humans, and sparrows have all been recorded to have it.
With snakes, this manifests in a very beautiful, sometimes eerie, way. Though they don’t always have to be white as a sheet, all albino snakes lack pigmentation. Some might have pale yellow skin, others may be pure white, while some simply lack one or two colors in their typical pattern. There is a very wide range of patterns and colors that albino snakes can be, despite the common believe that they are all white as a sheet. Different colors and patterns in a single snake species are called “morphs.”
One thing that most albino snakes have in common is their eye color. Their eyes are red, since they don’t have enough pigmentation to have eyes in other colors. The only exception to this rule are snakes that are leucistic. Leucistic snakes have black eyes, but lack all skin pigment. These are extremely rare, and there have been very, very few which have actually been bred in captivity. (Note: Leucistic snakes are NOT technically albino snakes. Albino snakes lack melanin. Leucistic snakes lack MULTIPLE types of pigmentation, not just melanin.)
People who have seen these snakes marvel at how incredibly stunning they appearance can be. Their piercing gaze from their eyes captivate, and people often can’t help but take a second glance at their unique skin tones. Aside from the strange coloration that these snakes have, they are perfectly normal snakes. They eat the same food, behave the same way, and are just as active as regular snakes.
Due to the almost unearthly appearance that an albino snake has, it comes as no surprise to anthropologists that albino snakes have been characters in mythology for centuries. For example, The Legend of the White Snake is an ancient Chinese tale that has been retold in books, operas, and movies. Albino snake photos have circulated the internet for years, too. Recently, the world-famous MMORPG World of Warcraft has featured an albino snake as a non-combative pet. Needless to say, there is a certain cultural fascination that has remained constant with albino snakes throughout the years.
A large part of the fascination with snakes that have albino traits could be because of their rarity. In order for albinism to occur in snakes, the snake has to inherit recessive traits in their genetic code. This can happen due to inbreeding, specialized albino breeding programs by zookeepers, a sudden mutation, or as a mishap during a breeding effort for different pigmentations. As a rule, albino snakes are extremely rare in nature, since their pale skin often is easier for predators to spot.
Their rarity, combined with the intense beauty that these snakes hold, has created a huge rise in demand for albino snakes. People are willing to pay top dollar for an albino snake. Corn snakes and Burmese pythons in particular have become very popular albino pets. Because of the high demand for both of these beautiful snakes in unique hues, many enterprising breeders have begun to breed albino snakes.
Breeding an albino snake is not an easy task. You will need to have two snakes that are genetically prone to albinism. If you have to snakes that carry (but do not display) the albino gene, you will have a 1 out of 4 chance of getting albino offspring. If you breed an albino to a non-carrier, you probably won’t get any albino snakes in that generation. Keeping a line of snakes that carry the albinism gene is very tricky due to all the chance factors that come with the task. Because of this, albino snakes are generally to be slightly more expensive than “regular” snakes of the same species.
Breeding albino snakes is still a relatively new trend. The first couple of sets of albino boas were shipped over in the 1980’s, and bred into the 1990’s. Burmese pythons have been bred for a longer time, but a pure white, black eyed leucistic morph of this breed is still exceptionally rare. Corn snakes, pythons, and boas are still the most commonly sold albino snakes today.