I first encountered Variable Kingsnakes in 1982. From my current point of view it was the golden age of mexicana availability, a time when wild bloodlines from Mexico were at their most accessible. Most of the Variable Kingsnakes available for sale at this time came from a relatively small (especially by today's standards) group of dedicated breeders. The average Variable Kingsnakes offered for sale were, for the most part, tan or gray serpents with dusky red, orange or maroon primaries. Leonis and milk snake phases were available in more or less equal proportions. I was immediately intrigued by these animals because of their extreme variation and how this variation might increase their evolutionary fitness. These Variable Kingsnakes were not thought of as particularly colorful kingsnakes but they had an exotic air about them because of the unusual color pallet and the nearly "anything goes" pattern repertoires. Add to this the inclusion of a naturally occurring melanistic form and I was hooked in a big way. The first specimen I was able to acquire was a female adult milk snake phase with a dark, charcoal gray background and deep maroon saddles. We rarely see this color arrangement these days with most US bloodlines having gravitated to line bred and/or crosses at the species/subspecies level. I immediately arranged for a breeding loan with a yellowish leonis male and produced a large clutch of extraordinarily variable offspring. This was my first experience with hatchlings (no internet at the time) and I was surprised with how colorful they were with their red/orange tails and beautiful sunbursts of red/orange behind the head. With some pride and excitement I revealed my precious hatchlings to a well known thayeri breeder in Southern California. I was certain that I had stumbled on to something special. This breeder merely glanced at my hatchlings and said something on the order of , "Sorry Tim, but they all look like that as hatchlings. Let them shed a few times and the colors will go brown or gray." I found this difficult to believe but it did prove to be the voice of experience speaking. I kept a couple of siblings from the cross and they did indeed become mostly dirty gray/brown and maroon. One of these offspring is pictured here: variable-et-001
I was to learn that not all Variable Kingsnakes became drab adults but gaining access to these exceptional individuals was very difficult as no concerted breeding efforts were being made. These exceptional individuals were often called "peach phase" and they occurred in both leonis and milk snake morphs. Actually, as I was to learn later, "peach phase" was a catch-all for adults that contained any reddish or orange-ish tones in the background color. Almost as elusive were the animals we grouped under the "buckskin" heading which were animals with light, mostly clear, yellowish to brownish tan background colors. In any case, It would be some time before I was able to tap into the "good stuff."
Birth of the VR Strain Variable Kingsnake
I knew from a genetic point of view that the ingredients for more intensely colored animals were in place in nearly all Variable Kingsnakes as evidenced by the striking colors of the hatchlings and, by extension, I assumed that a portion of the natural populations contained individuals that more or less held on to the bright nuchal and tail coloration which seemed to be ubiquitous amongst newly hatched juveniles. I became curious as to how such animals might appear as adults and why some L.m.thayeri evolved such garish colors while others were very somberly colored. The more I thought about it the more curious I became. I realized that I was unlikely to see this phenomena from the paucity of wild collected animals that slowly trickled into the hobby. I would have to line breed the average appearing wild type animals to get a better handle on what was going on genetically.
And thus, the kernel for the VR strain breeding project was born. Even at this early stage of the reptile hobby cross breeding mexicana to pyromelana, mexicana, alterna and greeri was under way across the country with some hobbyists rationalizing that these were all the same species - a case of super lumping. Breeders had already fast tracked thayeri colorwise by crossing them with pyromelana and producing gorgeously colored animals in the first generation - many of these animals were introduced into the US captive thayeri population in the early to mid 1980s. This route held no interest to me because of my deep seated interest in the phenotypic plasticity and evolution and inheritence patterns of the natural occuring animals. Thus, even back in 1982 we were tasked with avoiding the mine field of thayeri crosses and filtering potential breed stock by fidelity of provenance.
We now know that certain localities do indeed produce very bright animals at high frequency while in other localities the EarthTone color types prevail. And thayeri being thayeri, notable exceptions are the rule. A couple of years into the line breeding of this species and I was finally able to obtain a gorgeous peach phase, high altitude milk snake patterned male. This animal brought magic to my little breeding project and we were off to the races. I was able to capitalize on the quality of babies I was producing and use them to trade for animals previously unavailable to me and this was the point at which the VR Strain project was truly born. Even at this early date, as mentioned earlier, crosses were circulating through collections and vetting of project acquisitions was necessary. The vetting at this time was a little easier than it is today because the harp community was still small with everyone knowing everyone else and often knowing the histories of individual animals in other hobbyist's collections.
After a certain period the challenges of finding new bloodlines and vetting them became increasingly more difficult. There was little to no influx from Mexico any longer. This was a time when the previously integrated hardcore herp community stopped growing and sharing information because of manifold legal issues associated with the growth of the hobby and the broadly cast but misguided reptile stings that had become all the current rage. Another availability problem that I was to encounter later was that many, if not most, domestic thayeri lines were often directly related to Vivid stock. During this time I was in the midst of building a biology career and I was selling all the animals I did not keep for myself to the large breeders of the time at wholesale prices. Because of the eye candy appeal of these thayeri these breeders were retaining many of these Vivid animals for their own breed stock. The backlash of this was that nearly all of the purported "new" thayeri strains that would come available from time to time could be traced back to Vivid stock. Because of the vast differences in coloration, most of the other early (and most interesting!) bloodlines became lost, replaced by the Vivid "orange" leonis and milk snake phases. We must have fielded a thousand requests from hobbyists for Vivid animals that were unrelated to animals they had picked up at a reptile swap meet. An impossible task by this time. We had also placed many thayeri into European and Asian hobbyists so that avenue of possible acquisitions was a dead end. Now, it is only the rare border confiscated animal that make their way into the VR collection.
The Minutiae of Variable Kingsnake Line Breeding
I should preface this section by stating that, in general, the line breeding of reptiles holds little appeal to me. The results of line breeding always seem a bit contrived when compared to the creations wrought by the unfathomably patient hands of nature. Nature is capable of producing forms that are a mix of the familiar and the strangely alien. Humans, on the other hand, produce forms that leave no doubt as to the nature of the mind that created them. That said, in the correct context, line breeding as a tool can reveal some of nature's closely held secrets and that is what we used in this particular exploration of thayeri phenotypes. The icing on the cake with this project in the early years was the seemingly insatiable appetite of mexicana hobbyist for brightly colored Variable Kingsnakes.
The tinkering required to liberate the desired genes was complicated because, as it turned out, there were multiple facets to the problem. Three of these facets which were critical:
1. Expansion of juvenile coloration to include the full body
2. Color lock-in - where juvenile color persists through adulthood
3. Removal of dark pigmented stippling
The expansion of juvenile coloration meant more or less just line breeding for expansion of the color real estate that already existed on hatchlings. This was fairly straightforward line breeding requiring a perceptive eye as well as the usual time and patience required in such undertakings. Straightforward, line breeding techniques were applied to the color lock-in problem as well. The most difficult wall of all to surmount was that of the natural tendency of mexicana to mute their base (background) coloration with tiny specks of dark pigment. At Vivid we call this peppering with dark pigment, stippling. Stippling is a very well conserved genetic trait in mexicana and it appears to have evolved to dampen overly bright pigment as thayeri mature. This duality of color phenotypes, meaning brightly colored juveniles with somber toned adults, is common with many reptiles and probably relates to how the exposure of the animals to predators and prey changes during the life cycle. Even today some VR Strain adults will exhibit mild stippling in the background at mid-body. The three components outlined here took nearly eighteen years to understand and then act upon in the putting together of the genes of the VR strains. We now know that stippling is more prevalent at some localities than at others and some local areas seem to be devoid of individuals with stippling. Stippling is non-existent on nearly all juveniles, so for reasons that we have not quite yet discerned - nature promotes bright juveniles and somber adults. Thayeri from the northeast portion of the range seem to lack stippling all together (have to take into account the paucity of specimens however) and thayeri descended from the Laredo confiscation have very little stippling. So there seems to be a natural variation in wild populations. Speculating about how this could relate to habitat, predator/prey relations, etc. yield good entertainment for those fond of biology puzzles. A final note about stippling - the original thayeri designers must have decided that pure white for background coloration is a big no, no. Animals that hatch with pure, appliance enamel white seem universally unable to hold on to it, sometimes filling in with massive amounts of dark stippling that totally obscures the white producing a gray snake or they fill in with very fine stippling that eventually brings the white down a few notches.
Birth of the EarthTone
Actually, there was no birth of the EarthTone. We merely capitalized on the naturally occuring thayeri traits that evolved to make them disappear in their natural surroundings. Nature had taken care of the line breeding of these traits millennia ago. The traits are pleasing to the sophisticated eye and we merely expanded upon the theme. This is how the often cited "green" thayeri came about - it is simply a common, natural variation, especially notable on thayeri from the southern parts of the range. The same problems of limited supply of new genes for the EarthTones applied as it did to the VR Strains project. The two resulting groups of breeders at Vivid could not easily dip into each others for genetic refreshes because the resulting crosses would set the individual projects back time wise each time the out crosses were performed. All in all, the EarthTones are my favorite group. This may seem surprising given the work that went into the VR strains but the idea was always to understand the naturally occuring workings of species better. Along the way, the VR strains seem to take on a life of their own and, I believe, popularized the species in a good way.
At this point most hobbyists have become about the availability of gorgeously colored thayeri. The advent of the great albino rush and the hybrid era have reinforced this attitude and eroded the interest of many would be mexicana fans. It is absolutely essential to bring in and expand new genetic ambassadors whenever possible at this point because this wonderful, variable species is in real danger of becoming genetically extinct in captive collections. The phenotypic plasticity of this species makes most crosses difficult to impossible to recognize and thus policing by visual appearance is difficult. This plasticity also makes it mandatory for future researchers and collectors to breed and document the phenotypic range of new (genetically new) specimens rather than merely counting scales, cataloging and putting them into a jar of formaldehyde to sit on dusty university and museum shelves. It is important that this species is viewed in its totality rather than just as individual specimens. This Lampropeltis, more so than most others, is all about variability and response to fantastically diverse environmental conditions.
For an interesting and far more scholarly treatment of L.m.thayeri and mexicana in general, please visit Robert Hansen's illuminating website at this link: http://www.sierraherps.com/species