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Snake 'Virgin Births' More Common Than Previously Thought, Researchers Say

Jan 04, 2016 06:53 PM EST
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Virgin births, scientifically called parthenogenesis, may be more common among snakes than previously thought. Understanding this sort of reproduction sheds light on the evolutionary history of vertebrates, researchers say.

There are many forms of parthenogenesis, or asexual reproduction -- two of which include facultative parthenogenesis -- when reproduction can take place either sexually or asexually -- and obligate parthogenesis -- when reproduction is only asexual. While facultative parthenogenesis appears to be quite common among snakes, obligate parthogenesis is extremely rare, according to a news release.

"Once considered an evolutionary novelty, facultative parthenogenesis has now been documented in an increasing number of vertebrate species, ranging from the hammerhead shark to domestic turkeys, komodo dragons to snakes; however it is this last group that offers us the greatest insight into this unusual reproductive trait," Dr. Warren Booth, study co-author from the Department of Biological Sciences and the University of Tulsa, explained in the release.

It would seem that parthenogenesis provides a species with several advantages over their sexual counterparts, simply because they don't have to expend as much energy searching for a mate. However, sexual reproduction is the most common form of reproduction among animals, suggesting there are benefits to this method -- such as increased genetic diversity -- that compensate for energy loss.

Recently, a virgin birth was observed in a yellow-bellied watersnake living at the Missouri Department of Conservation's (MDC) Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center for the second time. In this case, researchers suggest the female is reproducing asexually because she hasn't had a male snake around for a while. Although her first offspring are alive and well, her second virgin birth was not successful, which researchers believe is a result of an incorrect combination of chromosomes.

"Having recently been documented in natural populations and across a variety of lineages within the snake phylogeny, ranging from the boas and pythons through to the water snakes and pitvipers, we revisit previous studies identifying commonalities and variations that offer new insight into this remarkable trait within snakes," Booth added. "Based on our findings we propose splitting facultative parthenogenesis within snakes into two forms, and thus identify snakes as ideal model species to study the evolution of vertebrate parthenogenesis."

Their study was recently published in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society

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