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New Hybrid Lizard Species Created in Lab

Dec 19, 2014 03:58 PM EST

A new lizard species has been created in a lab, a breakthrough in genetics research considering the hybrid offspring are not only fertile, but can essentially clone themselves, a new study describes.

For years scientists have tried to create new hybrid species, but while getting two distinct species to mate isn't difficult, the problem is that the offspring are usually infertile - the mule comes to mind. The trick is being able to generate a new species that can both survive and reproduce; otherwise they can't really call it a new species.

But now, a new study describes in the journal Breviora the success of a new species of lizard called Aspidoscelis neavesi.

The species originated through the hybridization of two distinct species of whiptail lizards - Aspidoscelis exsanguis and Aspidoscelis inornata.

In the lab, scientists put female A. exsanguis (which uniquely have three sets of chromosomes) and male A. inornata caught in New Mexico in the same containers. Both groups did indeed mate with each other, producing to the scientists' delight four reproducing females (with four sets of chromosomes each). So essentially the females could clone themselves, and their offspring then create clones of their own as well.

A colony of 200 of these hybrid progenies exist as a result.

"As soon as they told me what they had done, I knew it was a species," Dr. Charles Cole, a herpetologist at the American Museum of Natural History, who has previously studied whiptail lizards, told The New York Times.

And while some may consider this a freak experiment that goes against the laws of nature, researchers assure that the lizards are pretty much to blame.

"It's not a Frankenstein genome manipulation," Cole added. "It's lizards in cages doing their thing."

So what's the lizards' secret? Well, whiptails lizards - which live in the southwestern United States - are unique in that they possess two copies of each chromosome, which are so different that it looks as if each came from a separate species.

Even more bizarre is that many whiptail species don't produce males, only females, whose eggs hatch healthy female clones - a process known as parthenogenesis.

Normally during fertilization, one set of chromosomes comes from the male and female. But through parthenogenesis, female whiptail lizards can duplicate the chromosomes in their offspring without males. Thus by interbreeding individuals from two different species, females can in short clone a new species of their own that's distinct from both parent's set of genes.

This unconventional breeding is what resulted in the new A. neavesi species.

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