It wasn’t until a few weeks after the albino ball python hatched that Justin Kobylka noticed it was distinctly marked with three smiley faces. He saw one — a yellow blob that looks like a smiling emoji — and thought it was cool. Then, when reviewing a photograph of the snake, he noticed they comprised a trio — a pattern that he, a professional snake breeder, had never heard of. He was in the presence of a rare masterwork of genetic engineering.
“I knew theoretically that you could get smiley faces — one smiley face is not that uncommon,” said Kobylka, who hatched his first batch of snakes in an incubator underneath his dorm room bed in college, in an interview with Inverse. “I would likely be able to breed more in the future that have just one, but I don’t know if I could get three ever again no matter how long I try. It’s really a lucky thing.”
This snake’s existence is a mixture of luck and years’ worth of careful science. While the snake’s unique pattern is what makes it viral worthy, what is less obvious is how difficult it is for a highly patterned albino — that is, white-skinned — ball python to even exist.
There are two recessive mutations, fairly common in the natural world, manifested this snake: albinism and piebaldism, an autosomal dominant disorder correlated with having a white triangular patch on the forehead. The first albino ball python that ever hatched was bred from double heterozygous parent snakes that both contained mutant alleles at both genes encoding these two traits. Because the odds are one in 16 that a snake carrying both mutations could hatch and each female only has six eggs a year, it could take two to three years for this breeding to even occur, Kobylka says.
Breeding gets easier once the first albino pyball is born: Using it in a second pairing with another double heterozygous parent, the odds drop to one in four. Still, there’s no guarantee that the albino pyball’s characteristic “splotch” pattern will form the shape of a smiley, let alone three times in a row; it occurs in only one in ten snakes. This is where Kobylka’s luck factors in.
“The special smilies are fun, but we’re just happy to be able to make an albino ball python,” says Kobylka. “Two years ago, making an albino ball python was a holy grail.”
When these special snakes hatched, they were worth a pretty penny for collectors; they are valued between $30,000 to $40,000. Today, Kobylka can use an albino python in the actual pairing as a double homozygous animal as the parent, which drops the odds to another albino ball python hatching to one in four. While this easier breeding system has increased the quantity available, and has dropped the price to about $4,500 each.
Is it possible for you to get an emoji snake exactly like this? Probably not — science isn’t on your side and Kobylka is keeping this one.