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Virgin births: Snakes, sharks, and other animals reproduce without mating?

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A new study suggests some animals have virgin births, which means the female doesn't require a male to fertilize her egg. Can a real birth actually happen without mating?

Discovery reports that there have been several instances in which wild snakes, especially, have been known to give birth in the wild without any help from the male. This has also been the case with sharks, turkeys, chickens, lizards, insects, and other animals.

Scientists studied the two North American viper species -- copperhead and cottonmouth -- to better understand the virgin birth. Even with the predominant presence of males around the females, the snakes were part parthenogenic reproduction (virgin births).

How can this actually happen without an egg and a sperm coming together? Warren Booth, an assistant professor at the University of Tulsa's Department of Biological Sciences, said an egg cell “fused to a part of itself, and her chromosomes doubled.” Therefore, the "offspring wound up having two copies of her set of chromosomes, and therefore half the genetic materials."

The only issue is that without the male's DNA, the virgin births lends itself to a lack of genetic chromosomes. This may seem like "inbreeding," but Warren Booth said it's not all bad.

“We see extreme inbreeding in many insect species, such as bed bugs and cockroaches, and they thrive," Booth said. "So while inbreeding is never ideal, it is not necessarily bad in all cases.”

The snakes that had virgin “are outwardly healthy,” Booth explained, “and on their way to sexual maturity.”

As for the copperhead viper that was in the study of virgin births, Booth believes this happened because the snake was overlooked by males in the wild in favor of larger females to mate with.

A few other theories exist regarding what triggers virgin births in snakes or other animals. It could possibly be due to the fact a female wants to establish a population with her son and bacteria or disease could be the result of her avoiding males to mate with.



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