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A Statement Regarding Melanistic Agouti

It has recently come to our attention that some discussion has been had among members of the rat fancy regarding our breeding plans, this discussion is largely lacking in fact. We feel that it is important to try and promote the factual background of our plans and ensure that all people know the real details rather than base their opinions on some of the half-truths that have been heard recently.
The Background:
In mid 2007, a rat owner approached Brecklagh looking to home an agouti rescue kitten to be company for two female babies she had bought from a breeder. These were a hairless dumbo and a chocolate irish dumbo. The owner contacted us a week later worried about the amount of weight the hairless dumbo had gained and asked us to take a look at her, we confirmed that she was pregnant. The mother had a successful pregnancy and labour and gave birth to a medium sized litter, comprised of roughly half and half hairless to furred babies. We homed two babies from this litter on a purely pet basis, one hairless and one furred chocolate, both girls, as it was a good opportunity to own a hairless without lowering our ethics and purchasing one from pet shop stock.
As the babies grew, it became more and more obvious that the chocolate girl, Elpheba, was not chocolate but a much more unusual colour. As she aged it became more and more distinct and in the end we were compelled to post pictures on an online rat forum asking for opinions on what she might be. A well known breeder in the UK, Ann Storey felt that it was possible that she could be a variety termed Melanistic Agouti - a variety rarely seen in rats and not currently known in the UK fancy. This was promptly backed up by the opinion of Alan Gangi, an American breeder currently breeding for a variety they have termed Shadow, thought to be a melanistic gene. We took Elpheba to see Ann who confirmed that she did appear to be a melanistic agouti.
The Plans:
After not a small amount of deliberation and some research, we decided that we would look into the possibility of breeding from Elpheba in order to attempt to recreate the variety, if it is at all possible. Only one other experience of melanistic agouti was not able to be recreated as the doe in question was infertile and did not have a litter.
After contact with the owner of the litter as well as taking advice from other breeders that we hold in high regard, and after having confirmation that Elpheba was of good type, fitness, health and temperament, it was decided that in the interests of the possible benefits of the melanistic gene being in the rat fancy (see below) we would attempt a mating between Elpheba and a pure agouti buck from a very well known, stable line in order to counteract the lack of family history for Elpheba. A buck was chosen from Halcyon lines, Halcyon Lord Melchett, who is a proven stud buck owned by Ann Storey, of good type, health and temperament, and who is from a long running pure agouti line where the background is well known.
Having spoken to others about predicted outcomes, babies were expected to be all agouti, carrying the melanistic gene, the plan would then have been to carry on the line and try to recreate the melanism in further generations.
The mating occured in late May 2008 and the pregnancy progressed well. By day 21 Elpheba was obviously pregnant and happily nesting, however the labour on day 23 did not proceed properly and despite having contractions the babies were not born. On the afternoon of day 24, a caesarian section was carried out and 16 babies removed from the doe, 12 dead and 4 alive. Sadly 2 died within a short amount of time, and one died a while later. One baby survived and was hand fed until the following day when she was able to be fostered into a foster litter and has thrived since, as I write this she is now 7 weeks old. Elpheba was spayed and has recovered extremely well with no complications.
As with any mating plans, the decision to mate Elpheba was based upon a long and thorough thought process which involved balancing our ethics with what resources we had. Elpheba was a sturdy, friendly and loving doe with a good type and good health. The only thing missing with her was a full family history, although we had the knowledge of her mother, aunt and all her littermates, two of which had been homed by another breeder specifically for the purpose of breeding who had kept us well informed of their progress.
When working with rats of unknown history it is important to do the best when choosing a mate and so a sturdy, well known agouti line was chosen to be the basis of the matings, to ensure that despite the unknown genes of Elpheba, the best genes possible are brought in on the buck's side to help provide the best footing possible. Once the first mating is done, providing effort is put in to ensure proper pairings and matings, specifically the inclusion of inbreeding of the line to ensure proper knowledge of any hidden genetic traits, within a few generations much more knowledge of the lines is attained and proper decisions can be made on the health and general wellbeing of a line.
Any enquirers about the breeding plans for melanistic agouti, specifically enquiring about babies, have had the issues with the plans fully explained and have either chosen to home rats from our variegated line which has a fully known history, or have chosen to support the plans for recreating the gene, with the knowledge that the babies will be as well handled and raised as any Brecklagh babies are, and that there will be life-long support for any health or temperament issues should arise, along with the promise of taking kittens back should the need arise, which applies to all rats homed by us regardless of background. Wherever possible, babies from the melanistic agouti plans will be homed locally in pet homes who are willing to keep us very well informed and will be local enough to visit should the need arise.
Why breed Melanistic at all, and what is it?
Melanism is a genetic mutation (like all rat varieties other than agouti) which occurs in many different types of animals, though in the natural world occurs rarely and is often caused by an outside force such as industrial change (such as in the well known study on peppered moths in UK industrial cities).
The mutation in rats causes a pattern of fading in a self rat, producing an effect very similar to an agouti on, say, a black or other dark shaded rat. The rat in question will have a silver grey belly, with grey 'ticked' shading up the sides and up the neck, comprised of grey and yellow banding. Depending on the extremity of the shading, the shading may cover all of the sides, nearly up to the back, or only go part way up the sides. Generally towards the top of the back the rat will retain the self colour. Some rats will show greying around the eyes and nose also.
Melanism is a mutation which occurs rarely but is generally reproduceable if the natural world dictates that the melanistic mutation is beneficial in some way, or in the artificial world of breeding or laboratory work.
Some laboratory work has been undertaken, specifically in melanistic cats, which has shown that there may be a benefit to melanistic animals in the form of a more efficient immune system when combating infections and diseases, due to a greater immune response. There have also been some studies into melanistic insects, regarding the same increased immune system response.
Even if there is only a remote chance that this is true in all animals, the possibilities of being able to create a gene that may make rats healthier and able to fight infections better are exciting and infinitely important. Our rats face a day to day battle with the fight against Mycoplasmosis, found in every pet rat in the country today, and any genetic progress that might make rats better equipped to fight infections can only be a good thing. It will not be a short haul - we have not even proved that the gene is reproduceable yet, but if it is and the theory is correct, the introduction of melanism into the rat fancy could make a massive difference to the health of our pet rats in the long term, and that is surely the main reason why any rat breeder should be breeding.
So what next?

Despite the fact that the mating with Elpheba did not work due to the labour difficulties, and despite some negative comments about the lack of history of one of the rats involved, we are not prepared to give up on this gene, as we feel it could be a huge loss to the rat fancy as a whole if we gave up on an opportunity that could mean so much.
We have put together a plan to take us into the future, and will be attempting another mating between a Halcyon black self doe and one of Elpheba's brothers who resides with another breeder. This is with the full support of Lisa Grove of Halcyon, the breeder who owns the brother and the owner of the original mother. We hope that despite the previous difficulties, the mating will go well this time and may even provide us with melanistic kittens. The buck that will be used is actually a hairless buck, but having worked out the genetics will either carry or be melanistic 'underneath'. With the fact that all babies will therefore carry hairless, there is a chance that in the future hairless rats will crop up in our litters. It should be made clear that at no point will we be actively breeding hairless rats and any hairless that crop up in the litter will be either be kept or homed to trusted friends and not offered to the general public. In the long term we will be breeding away from hairless so in time it will not be present in the rats we breed.
In the long-term, if the gene proves reproduceable, the plan will be to form an established line from which a full history and proper judgement on their health can be made. Of course as with any breeding line, if at any point the gene proves unreproduceable or unhealthy, the breeding plans will be stopped.

Brecklagh Rattery - enquiries@brecklagh.com - 07540 813338