What does it mean when a leopard gecko is of a specific “morph?”
As a leopard gecko keeper, you may have heard about something called enigma syndrome.
You might know different morphs of leopard gecko have other traits, resulting in a stunning variety of colors and patterns.
How do these relate to gecko genetics?
Do those colors and patterns come with other genetic mutations?
What is enigma syndrome, and why does it affect enigma morphs?
Do other morphs have similar issues?
The origin of leopard gecko morphs, and genetic disorders like enigma syndrome, have their roots in the selective breeding of captive leopard gecko keepers.
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What Are Leopard Gecko Enigma Morphs?
Enigma morphs are a group of variations in color and patterns in captive-bred leopard geckos. They tend to be very popular among reptile keepers, though crossbreeding has resulted in some neurological problems associated with the morph.
As hatchlings, enigma leopard geckos tend to have black blotches rather than the regular bands.
However, they come in a variety of colors, including oranges, reds, bright yellows, and whites.
They have nonsymmetrical blotch patterning on their backs, with entirely white tails.
Around 2006, leopard gecko breeders started seeing equilibrium and balance deficiencies in their captive populations.
Though enigmas most commonly had the neurological disorder, now called enigma syndrome, other morphs were also affected.
What Is Enigma Syndrome In Leopard Geckos?
Enigma syndrome is caused by a genetic mutation in non-sex chromosomes in a leopard gecko.
It is a mutation which affects neurological function, particularly brain cells responsible for coordinated movement and cognition.
Scientists theorize it ultimately causes cell death in the brain in those areas.
Most often, enigma syndrome is a late-onset neurological disease.
Unfortunately, this often makes it difficult for breeders to know which of their individuals are affected.
It is easy to mate affected geckos and realize too late they have the mutation.
The severity of symptoms and effects vary across geckos with enigma syndrome.
Whether a leopard gecko will develop symptoms will depend both on its environment and its genotype.
Mild symptoms of enigma syndrome include:
- stargazing (staring up at the top of their enclosures for seemingly no reason)
- lying in strange places
- head tilting
- occasional circling
Severe symptoms include:
- inability to catch insects
- constant circling
- death rolls (rolling over onto their backs)
These symptoms may manifest after trauma, like injury or aggression from a tank mate or potentially shipping or relocation stress.
Is There A Cure For Enigma Syndrome?
If you have bought a leopard gecko with enigma syndrome, you may be wondering if there is a cure.
Unfortunately, there is not, but enigma syndrome is not a fatal disease.
Since it is genetic, it is also not contagious to healthy, well-balanced leopard geckos.
It is often compared to neurological disorders like autism in humans.
Geckos with severe cases may need to be assisted in feeding for the rest of their lives since not being able to catch prey is one of the symptoms.
If you have a leopard gecko with enigma syndrome, make sure to minimize their stressors.
This may mean separating a leopard gecko from others unless a tank mate helps to calm them.
Keep their heat, humidity, lighting, and diet appropriate and balanced.
Make sure to keep their enclosure in a safe and secure place away from loud or sudden noises and bright lights.
Make sure you do not handle them too much and pay attention to their body language when they want to be left alone.
Leopard geckos need at least three hides and do not do well in crowded enclosures.
What Causes Enigma Syndrome?
Enigma syndrome is an autosomal disorder, which means the alleles which cause it are attached to non-sex chromosomes.
Those with at least one of the dominant alleles for enigma syndrome will have the disorder and may display symptoms based on environmental factors.
Those who have only recessive alleles do not have the disorder.
Each affected gecko is the offspring of at least one affected parent.
To explain the genetics of enigma syndrome, we will be using A to represent the dominant, syndrome-causing allele and a to represent the recessive allele.
The majority of geckos affected by enigma syndrome are heterozygous for it, meaning they have one dominant and one recessive allele, Aa.
Homozygous dominant alleles, or AA, will usually lead to a miscarriage of a gecko or death before hatching.
Both female and male geckos are equally likely to be affected by the mutation.
Even though there are differences between males and females, leopard geckos do not have sex chromosomes.
Therefore, any mutation which affects them is autosomal.
Genes which result in enigma morphs and the mutation which causes enigma syndrome is most likely on the same chromosome since it seems they are genetically related.
However, non-enigmas are not immune from carrying the gene for the syndrome.
How Do I Help Prevent Enigma Syndrome?
If you are a leopard gecko breeder, do your best to breed only unaffected individuals.
Unless you have sequenced their genetics beforehand, this may be difficult.
As mentioned, enigma syndrome usually develops later in a leopard gecko’s life or is the result of outside stressors.
Do not breed related leopard geckos, as incestuous pairings are more likely to result in unwanted genetic disorders and mutations.
Do your best to outbreed with a different gene pool.
The demand for leopard gecko breeders is excellent, as they are one of the most popular pet reptiles.
Greater demand on specific markets may lead to more irresponsible breeding practices, leading to more enigmas and other morphs with the syndrome or other problems.
If you are buying a leopard gecko, make sure to buy from a respected and reputable captive breeder.
Ask questions about a gecko’s parents, especially if you are most interested in enigmas.
A reputable breeder should be able to give you a complete history, along with any potential incidences of any problems in the individual’s ancestry.
Since genome sequencing projects are now cheaper and easier to apply to animals, a few breeders are putting some into development for leopard geckos.
These breeders hope to curb irresponsible breeding of reptile pets and make sure only healthy leopard geckos are bred and go into the pet trade.
They also want to guarantee every leopard gecko breeding project will start with healthy, ordinary leopard gecko stock without the enigma syndrome mutation.
They also hope to eliminate the need for test breeding.
These breeders have formed an organization called “The Coalition of Health and Genetics for Leopard Geckos.”
Reptile breeding and care organizations and symposiums have banned enigma breeding or spoken up about irresponsible or harmful breeding practices among reptile pets.
Do Other Leopard Gecko Morphs Have Similar Issues?
Genetic mutations can negatively affect any morph.
Enigma syndrome is caused by just one mutation.
A different autosomal mutation has affected white and yellow morphs, resulting in white and yellow syndrome.
Like enigma syndrome, the white and yellow syndrome affects balance and cognition.
Unlike enigma syndrome, it is easily bred out of captive populations.
Super snow leopard geckos, while not affected in terms of balance and cognition, do have the genetic tendency not to grow very large.
They also tend to be picky eaters and have a greater likelihood of skull deformities.
Lemon frost leopard geckos are a newer morph, released onto the market in 2015.
Though they are beautiful, lemon frosts are more likely to develop fatal tumors and do not have a very long life expectancy.
Without genetic mutation, we would not have as many morphs or varieties of captive-bred leopard geckos as we do.
Not all genetic mutations have adverse effects.
Some have no effects at all.
However, new demands on existing populations, and the demand for new colors and patterns of leopard geckos, increase the likelihood selective breeding may result in new mutations with harmful effects on individuals.
Rarer morphs of leopard gecko are also expensive, sometimes running into thousands of dollars.
Enigma syndrome is a neurological genetic disorder which mainly affects captive-bred enigma morphs of leopard gecko, though other morphs may develop the condition.
Morph breeding projects have led to the rise of a wide variety of color and pattern morphs in pet reptiles.
However, the high demand for certain morphs gives rise to irresponsible breeding practices, which leads to a higher incidence of conditions like enigma syndrome.
While enigma syndrome is not fatal for a pet, it may be disruptive for an individual presenting symptoms, and there is no known cure.
Symptoms are often triggered by stress or trauma.
If you have a leopard gecko with enigma syndrome, make sure to minimize stressors in and around their enclosure.
Prevent more cases of enigma syndrome by engaging in good leopard gecko breeding practices and buying from reputable breeders devoted to improving pet trade and breeding stock.
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