Virgin birth has just been discovered in wild snakes. Cue Jurassic Park theme music.

Illustration for article titled Virgin birth has just been discovered in wild snakes. Cue Jurassic Park theme music.

Facultative parthogenesis, commonly known as "virgin birth," isn't unheard of in the animal kingdom, but it's especially rare among vertebrates. And while it's been observed in snakes in the past, never before has it been identified in any wildspecies. Until now.


In the latest issue of Biology Letters, a team of researchers led by geneticist Warren Booth presents evidence that North American pit vipers — which last year became the fourth species of captive parthenogenic snake to be described in almost fifteen years — are capable of reproducing without being fertilized by a male. But unlike the pit viper's in last year's study (which was also led by Booth), these snakes are capable of virgin births in the wild.

BBC's Jeremy Cole provides a tidy overview of the researchers' methods:

Booth and his collaborators investigated virgin births in wild populations of two geographically separated and long-studied species of snake.

They captured pregnant copperhead and cottonmouth female pit-vipers from the field, where males were present.

The snakes gave birth, allowing the scientists to study the physical and genetic characteristics of the litters.

Of the 22 copperheads, the scientists found one female [pictured up top with her parthenogenetic male offspring] that must have had a virgin birth. Another single virgin birth occurred within the 37 cottonmouth litters.

Booth calls the results of the study "astounding":

I think the frequency is what really shocked us. That's between 2.5 and 5% of litters produced in these populations may be resulting from parthenogenesis. That's quite remarkable for something that has been considered an evolutionary novelty.

A novelty no more, it would seem. Don't you just love it when Jeff Goldblum is right?


You can check out the researchers' findings (no subscription required!) in the latest issue of Biology Letters.



Don't let the boas and pythons in the Everglades read this.