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Starck, J. Matthias; Schrenk, Fabian; Schröder, Sophia; Pees, Michael; Schubert, Michael (2022): Malformations of the sacculus and the semicircular canals in spider morph pythons. PLOS ONE, 17 (8): e0262788. ISSN 1932-6203

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Spider morph ball pythons are a frequently-bred designer morph with striking alterations of the skin color pattern. We created high-resolution μCT-image series through the otic region of the skulls, used 3D-reconstruction software for rendering anatomical models, and compared the anatomy of the semicircular ducts, sacculus and ampullae of wildtype Python regius (ball python) with spider morph snakes. All spider morph snakes showed the wobble condition (i.e., twisting movements of the head, impaired locomotion, difficulty striking or constricting prey items). We describe the inner ear structures in wildtype and spider morph snakes and report a deviant morphology of semicircular canals, ampullae and sacculus in the latter. We also report about associated differences in the desmal skull bones of spider morph snakes, which were characterized by wider semicircular canals, ampullae widened and difficult to discern in μCT, a deformed crus communis, and a small sacculus with a highly deviant X-ray morphology as compared to wildtype individuals. We observed considerable intra- and interindividual variability of these features. This deviant morphology in spider morph snakes could easily be associated with an impairment of sense of equilibrium and the observed neurological wobble condition. Limitations in sample size prevent statistical analyses, but the anatomical evidence is strong enough to support an association between the wobble condition and a malformation of the inner ear structures. A link between artificially selected alterations in pattern and specific color design with neural-crest associated developmental malformations of the statoacoustic organ as known from other vertebrates is discussed.

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