When a mommy snake loves a daddy snake very much, sometimes they make a baby snake. At least, that's what you've been taught. But a twenty-foot two-hundred pound female reticulated python didn't follow the rules, giving birth to six offspring with no help from a male.
At the Louisville Zoo, the monster python laid more than sixty eggs in the summer of 2012. The reptile staff at the zoo incubated some of them, and they wound up with six that successfully hatched and survived. But what was surprising was that the female hadn't been housed with a male for at least four years. Was she perhaps storing up sperm from prior sexual encounters? Or was this yet another example of a so-called "virgin birth," also called facultative parthenogenesis?
("Facultative" means that the species typically has sexual reproduction, while "obligate parthenogenesis" means that a species only reproduces asexually.)
The staff at the zoo sent scale samples from mom and the six babies to a molecular ecology laboratory in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Tulsa, in Oklahoma. There, researchers recently verified that the offspring's genes came entirely from the mother; no father necessary.
At first, you might not be all that impressed that a snake could reproduce asexually, but this is actually a historic event. While it's known that facultative parthenogensis can occur in sharks, snakes, komodo dragons, and some birds (along with lots of invertebrates), it's never been recorded in a reticulated python, until now. Life finds a way, etc.
If you live near the Louisville Zoo, you can see mom together with another female in the HerpAquarium. The babies are off exhibit, and because of their size and space requirements, will probably be sent to other Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited zoos.
Header image: Wikimedia Commons/Goalsurfer.