Boa constrictor imperator vs. Boa constrictor constrictorby Todd Schaefer
Making Sense of Localities
© Richard Brooks
Everyone has heard of the terms Red Tail Boa Constrictor ,Boa Constrictor Constrictor (B.C.C.) and Common Boa Constrictor, Boa Constrictor Imperator (B.C.I.). But what is the difference between them? Many enthusiastic herpers love pointing out distinctions among all breeds of snakes, but for some reason, many people cringe when it comes to identifying the locality of these Boa Constrictors. The reason is simple: Boa Constrictors are hard to identify! The purpose of this article is to spread awareness on this topic. I will be pointing out some of the differences between Common Boas and Red Tail Boas. But the focal point of this article is to help understand why there is so much confusion when it comes to these two types of snakes regarding their localities.
Two of the most commonly known names of Boa Constrictor are the Red Tail Boas (or Red Tailed Boas, whichever you prefer) and the Common Boas. If you are like me, you might have thought that they are one in the same snake. This is incorrect, however. They are two entirely different subspecies. You may have even heard the commonly used term, "True Red Tail Boa," which is a supplemental explanation used to assure buyers that what they are getting is a real Red Tail Boa, and not a Common Boa in sheep's clothing. Don't get me wrong, Common Boas are just as beautiful and valuable. But the bottom line is this: someone had to come up with the marketing term "True Red Tail" because of the confusion surrounding BCI and BCC localities. When you see a "True Red Tail," what it really means is: "Yes, I am aware of the epidemic of mistaken locality labels, and I have taken the liberty of renaming this snake so you know that I am aware of the issue."
Common Boas, which are typically assumed as having origin in Central America or Colombia, range from Northern South America into Mexico. Assuming that you can find a pure-bred Common Boa, they will be less expensive than Red Tail Boas, and will not grow as long as a Red Tail Boa (six to nine feet). Chances are you will encounter a Common Boa before a Red Tail Boa. Some experts believe that Red Tails originate only from the Orinoco Basins of Northern South America as well as into Peru, Guyana, Suriname, and Brazil. These are well-informed opinions, however, this does not mean what we all understand to be true about localities is entirely accurate.
Red Tail Boa
Red Tail Boas are heavier bodied than Common Boas. They tend to have sharp, dark markings, bold, bright red tails with black markings outlining them, yet lighter skin tone. Red Tail Boas are longer, ranging from nine to ten feet long. Commons can represent the same attributes as Red Tails. Unfortunately, subjectivity gets in the way. When the label for sale is written as "Red Tail Boa," it may only be a brightly colored Common Boa Constrictor. "Red Tail Boa" sounds more appealing than "Common Boa," and whether or not the difference is known, it would be even easier to fool an unaware customer.
Authenticity is something many folks value, but not necessarily something that everyone respects. For example, one way which locality has been identified has been when favorable colors on a Common Boa have been consistent within distinct populations of a specific region. In order to meet demands for specific locality reptiles, distributors began labeling Red Tails by their country of origin, or perhaps, supposed origin. Although perhaps well intentioned, many Red Tails that have shipped out of Colombia have been labeled by exporters as "Colombian Red Tail Boas." Such a snake does not exist. All Colombian Boas are Common Boas, as previously mentioned. Also, if locality data has been absent while determining origin, guesses have been made usually using patterns and colors alone.
A vast majority of herpetoculturalists, reptile keepers, breeders, and field herpers use a similar system to identify snakes. This system is based on cladistics, which means classification through observational means. For example, "I know this is an Anaconda Boa in front of me now because it's huge, its eyes are on top of its head, and it's green with black spots." You can be fairly certain about that observation, because it's hard to confuse an Anaconda with some other type of snake. Cladistics will assist in determining where a snake originates from, but it is based on logic. Logic is helpful, but blood never lies. In other words, the only way to be entirely correct about a species and begin making accurate speculation about where the species came from is from DNA analysis and not from how a snake looks.
So why doesn't everyone determine locality this way? You guessed it, the answer is money. It's easier and much more cost effective to make an educated guess than it is to spend the money to DNA test to find out for sure. Many reptile vendors who breed and morph their reptiles do have knowledge about this. Of course, they deserve due credit for doing this successfully. I'm not going to insult reputable breeders, but there are breeders/vendors out there who will take a class in genetics, learn what they need to learn to sell the product, and then assume expertise over their own classification. A molecular biologist will wait to give you an answer on a locality until there is empirical evidence. A vendor, however, might just learn enough until he can make the sale. Therefore, all vendors/breeders should be molecular biologists. There is some useful logic for you!
This information may sound coarse, and I do not want to give the notion that vendors are suspicious, money grubbing animals. Nevertheless, there are certainly some crooked vendors around. However, many vendors/breeders now are trying to make a difference and make successful locality determinations and good business practice, in general. Now, more herpers/consumers inhabiting this earth are taking responsibility to dispel myths, protect our reptiles from unwarranted legislation, and more. Together, we must work to uphold the ideals of proper husbandry, caretaking, and education of our reptiles for all others to enjoy in the future. By understanding where we have gone astray, we can create awareness on what we can do to make it right. The almighty dollar bill has caused some people to cut corners (thinking they have done no real harm). But the shortsighted have failed to realize the problem they have created. Whether intentionally done or not, the integrity standard of determining locality has been lowered, and everyone must be aware of that. Every herper you will come in contact with will have an explanation of his, or her, own. All you can do is make yourself aware, and help to uphold the standards which you know to be true.
Reference: "Boas" by Doug Wagner 1996