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Snake Surprise!

Mar 29 2012
by NEW Zoo Education Dept

by NEW Zoo Intern Adam Pankratz

Last October, during the Zoo Boo event, something out of the ordinary happened.  A visitor came to us with a small snake in a bucket, saying he knew it wasn’t something that was supposed to be found in his backyard.  The snake had an unusual pattern and coloring, making it a reasonable assumption that this was a captive animal – a pet – that someone had released into the wild.  We accepted the little snake into our care, and it was put into quarantine, as all animals that are new to the zoo must be.  At the time he came to us, we believed he was a corn snake.  With the widespread breeding of corn snakes, there have been many different color variations that have been selectively bred for in captivity.  This can make identification challenging at times, and our snake clearly possessed a color pattern that was not likely to be found in the forests of Wisconsin.   

But, over time, with closer inspection, we came to realize that our little snake was NOT a corn snake after all!  After some thorough research and with the help of a local snake expert, we learned that our mystery snake was, in fact, a western fox snake, a local species of snake common to the area.  However, this was no ordinary fox snake.  As it turns out, he is an albino western fox snake, the only one known in existence!   

What makes it so incredible that our fox snake is an albino is that survival is very difficult for animals with the albino trait.  Albinism (also known as amelanism) is caused by the lack of the pigment melanin in an animal’s skin.  This pigment is responsible for creating dark colors.  As a counterexample, a melanistic animal would have extra melanin pigment, resulting in a darker appearance.  A black panther, for example, is actually just a “melanistic jaguar.”  The extra melanin in its fur causes it to appear entirely black.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, amelanism ( or albinism) is defined as the complete lack of the melanin pigment.  Albino animals are often white or yellow in appearance.  This makes survival in the wild very difficult, as camouflage becomes nearly impossible.  For our fox snake to have survived as long as he did without the benefit of camouflage is quite an impressive feat!

The discovery of this little fox snake has already created some buzz amongst herpetologists (scientists that study reptiles and amphibians).  While he is still in quarantine behind the scenes here at the Zoo, the day may soon come when visitors will be able to see him.  We’ll be sure to let you know when that happens, so that you can come by and witness a truly one-of-a-kind animal!


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