(c) Gryph- if you repost this article, please post with a link back to my website.
Why is it Important to Learn Genetics?
It's so fun to have a rainbow of colors in the nestbox!
I hear it all the time- genetics are so COMPLICATED! Why should I learn about them? Why is it important for me to learn this crazy stuff? There are a bunch of reasons why it could be useful to know even just the basic five gene sets. Understanding how genetics work can help you make informed decisions when breeding rabbits. You can get a good idea of what colors to expect from a litter and learn how to tell what genes a rabbit carries by studying a pedigree. You can learn how to correctly ID the color of your own rabbits (trust me you will sound a lot more knowledgeable if you are selling blue and lilac rabbits then if you are selling “gray” rabbits). You can use genetics to lower your chances of producing a non-recognized color if you breed for show, or to learn how to tell if your rabbit IS a recognized color. You can avoid producing rabbits with “messy” genetics, and improve strength of color (for example, washed out reds are nowhere near as stunning as a good deep red). You can learn how to manipulate genetics to produce the colors you want (this can be SUPER handy if you can’t find the color you want to BUY- MAKE it instead!). You can also learn how to use an unrecognized colored rabbit with spectacular type and conformation to make recognized colored offspring. And all in all, just to be a more educated breeder. Having a good understanding of color genetics will assist you in getting the colors and patterns you desire, which in my opinion is one of the best parts about it! There are over 200 possible genotypes based on the 5 main color genes (and even more adding in the broken gene and with some of the less common genes). That means LOTS of colors to play with! Don’t let the idea that genetics is daunting stop you! Mastering genetics takes memorization and practice. I like to remind people that genetics will become more familiar the more you use them- the more you see the results of your research (and breeding), the more that the “rules” stick with you.
A Word of Warning
If you are breeding for show, you want to be careful about mixing colors at random, as you can seriously set back a program and cause all sorts of grief for yourself. Mixing chestnut and chinchilla, for example, can play havoc with a chestnut program. On the other hand, you can also use your genetics knowledge to IMPROVE your color programs and isn't that just a bonus! If you are more interested in pelts or meat or just breeding for pets, then you have a little more freedom in your breeding program; however, if you consider selling stock to a show breeder (ESPECIALLY 4-H kids) then it's imperative that you disclose any odd genetic outcrosses you have done.
The Rules Are the Rules
Genetic rules are based on science, not magic! While sometimes it seems like some rabbits “break the rules,” there is always a genetic reason why something happened. “Surprise” or “mystery” colors are usually the result of incorrect pedigrees, recording the wrong sire of a litter, the dam and/or sire being identified as the wrong color, and gene modifiers. Genotypes are the same across the board regardless of the breed of your rabbit, so there’s only one set of rules to learn! Rex, Holland Lops, Satin Angoras and Flemish Giants (for example) use the exact same genotypes even though they may use different names for the same color. We will explain more about genotypes as we go along.
Standard of Perfection
Before you start playing with colors, make sure you study the SOP (Standard of Perfection) for your breed if you plan to show or breed for show, because in some breeds only certain varieties are recognized. In the US, ARBA (American Rabbit Breeders Association) publishes the SOP. If you are in another country, then research if there is a standard of perfection or something similar. If you would like to purchase a copy of the current SOP (good until 2025), you can do so on the ARBA website: https://arba.net/product/standard-of-perfection-2016-2020
Basic Review- Aka High School Science Lesson...
Let’s start with a short high school science review...
Inside every rabbit’s cell are genes that contain DNA which is the blueprint that dictates how the rabbit will look, act, and function. These genes come in pairs, called alleles (for this set of lessons, we are going to concentrate on genes and alleles related to color and pattern). These alleles might be identical or different. There is always a dominant gene and a recessive (or backup) gene. One of each pair of genes comes from the sire and one comes from the dam. Because both the sire and the dam have two genes from each allele they can pass on, we can get a variety of colors and patterns in a litter. The dominant gene is the gene that gets “expressed,” in other words you can see its effect on the rabbit. The other gene (the recessive gene) is not expressed, it is “carried.” You might not even know the other gene is there unless it gets passed down to that rabbit’s offspring. Many different traits are inherited through simple dominant or recessive genes. Either gene can be passed on to future offspring, and the odds of one or the other being passed on is roughly 50%.