Friday, 12 July 2013

Widening the spotlight on genetic welfare problems: heritable disorders in selectively bred reptiles.

With the help of my programme director, Dr Fritha Langford, I have recently been lucky enough to secure a Student Vacation Scholarship from the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare to investigate the welfare consequences of selective breeding of captive reptiles.

My work will focus on the royal python Python regius, a species that has over the past two decades seen an explosion in popularity among pet owners, hobbyist and commercial breeders, due in part to the emergence and exploitation of atypical phenotypes or “morphs”. Base morphs, such as the above Spider (a pattern mutation) and Pastel (a colour mutation), are combined in artificial selective breeding to create designer morphs, such as the above “Bumblebee”.

Since the publication of the CAWC report on Genetic Welfare Problems in Companion Animals in 2006, animal welfare scientists have worked to increase awareness of genetic welfare problems linked to irresponsible selective breeding of companion animal species. To date, work has rightly been focused on domestic species, which have historically been subject to most selective breeding. However, with the recent surge in captive breeding of non-domestic species and the high demand for novel traits, there is a risk that characteristics detrimental to animal welfare will be propagated through artificial selection in reptiles in the same manner as has been seen in dogs and cats.

My project will focus on a single genetic disorder associated with a single, widely propagated phenotype of the royal python; the Spider morph (shown in the above example). The defect is known in the hobby as “wobble syndrome”, and presents as a characteristic loss of motor function during periods of stress and arousal. The Spider is deliberately selected for due to its high commercial value, resulting from its striking pattern, in which the black patches of the wild phenotype are significantly reduced to resemble a spider’s web.

Through survey of expert opinion, my report will establish for the first time a description of the wobble syndrome in the literature, and provide a quantitative assessment of the impacts of this condition to animal welfare. It is hoped that this will raise awareness of the potential for artificial selection to compromise welfare in reptiles, allowing informed breeding decisions to be made, evaluating anthropocentric benefit against welfare cost.

Mark Rose
Student on PGDip International Animal Welfare, Ethics and Law

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