Colour mutations are caused by a malfunction in the production of some of the pigments in the skin of animals called chromatophores. This malfunction inhibits the production of pigment cells (Broghammer, 2000). The cause of this malfunction is genetic. Many of the mutations exhibited by reptiles have this basic malfunction of pigment production. It affects several of the different colour pigments present in their skin.
In the following sections we will be discussing all of the major colour and pattern mutations. It is important to note that these mutations have only just begun to become really established in the reptile-breeding hobby in Australia. We are still very inexperienced in comparison to other countries like America and Europe. Colour and pattern serves as a means to conceal and protect reptiles in their natural environment.
Snakes have evolved over millions of years and are well adapted to the variety of habitats they occupy. Their skin gives them protection and their colours and patterns disguise them for the purposes of concealment and ambush.
Reptile skin consists of different layers of cells containing various pigments. These pigments all contribute to the final pattern and colour of the animal. Pigment cells and their disorders are what usually causes the abnormal colours in reptiles and are essentially developmental, structural and functional in origin. In cold—blooded vertebrates there are three fundamentally distinct types. (Bechtel, 1995).
Pigment cells produce different pigments and it is when all these pigments are arranged, layer upon layer that we get to see the distinctive colours and patterns that are known in reptiles today. It is the cooperation and partnership between these cells that enables reptiles to develop distinct colours and patterns.
Colour and pattern mutations are generally the result of a malfunction in one or more of these pigment cells. This malfunction is usually caused by a mutated gene or allele in the cell make up of that animal. In the following sections we will be discussing several of these genetic malfunctions or mutations and how they are presented to us. It is this malfunction in some of these pigments that allow Herpetoculturists to selectively breed animals that exhibit these unusual mutations.