A female snake from a zoo in the US has proved that females can manage to produce offspring without needing males! Its own cells (polar bodies) have acted as male sperms and ‘fertilised’ its own eggs. This resulted in the hatching of six baby snakes.
Longest snake has first virgin birth
The world’s longest snake species has its first documented virgin birth. A Malayopython reticulatus snake, named Thelma, at the Louisville Zoo in the US has done it all without any assistance from a male.
The 11-year-old, 6-meter long reptile is native from Southeast Asia. It has been in the zoo for four years. Her mate sharing the vivarium with her is also female – she had no contact with any male whatsoever. So, it came as quite a surprise when Thelma laid several eggs in 2012. Two weeks later, the eggs were removed for analysis. Thelma had previously spent the time before brooding the eggs.
The zoo curator, Bill McMahan, said:
“It is not uncommon for a snake to lay infertile eggs, so the staff was surprised when the eggs appeared to be full and healthy instead of shrunken and discolored shells, typical of infertile reptile eggs.”
Some of the clutch were artificially incubated by the staff members.
Thereafter, on the 12th of September 2012, the first of the six ‘babies’ emerged from its egg!
The mean weight of the newborns was 148.3 grams.
Genetic testing done
After the ‘virgin birth’, the mother and her 6 offspring went through a shedding cycle, at the end of which the skin was collected to be examined by researchers. Genetic tests were done to shed light on the nature of this weird happening.
The analysis showed that the baby snakes came to life through their mother only: no male had genetically contributed to their making. Thelma had not been in contact with any sperm cell at all.
Asexual reproduction does occur as a natural process in species of insects and worms. But such is rare in the wild. Instances where females like the python which normally reproduce sexually producing offspring without any male help are but uncommon. These rare cases have been documented in species of sharks, birds, lizards, and snakes living in zoos and others in captivity. But, animals living in the wild do not often the subject of such phenomenon.
What happened to Thelma?
Thelma’s eggs were ‘fertilised’ by some of her own cells known as polar bodies. The latter occur in the process of formation of egg cells and contain genetic material. While polar bodies are normally flushed away, these ones miraculously merged with the egg cells, and thereby causing cell division. This union brings about “half-clones” of the mother.
Well, it seems that females can actually live without males!