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For 16 years, a female American saltwater crocodile lived a solitary existence in a Costa Rican wildlife park. That was until one day, a startling 14 eggs were discovered in her enclosure. Living devoid of a mate, this astute creature made headlines by achieving what scientists call parthenogenesis, or a “virgin birth”.
Virgin births are not entirely unknown in the animal kingdom, with the phenomenon observed in species like snakes and bees. However, this marks the inaugural documentation of parthenogenesis in a crocodilian – a classification encompassing crocodiles, alligators, and gharials. The breakthrough is anticipated to illuminate our understanding of why parthenogenesis is triggered and whether it is a widespread ancestral trait.
The crocodile, aged 18 when her eggs were found, had been living alone since being captured at two years old. Out of the 14 eggs laid, seven appeared viable and were incubated artificially. Although none hatched, one housed a fully formed stillborn crocodile foetus, proven to be female via DNA analysis. The study, published in Biology Letters, confirmed the absence of paternal alleles – indicating no father involvement.
Unlike mammals, reptiles, birds, and sharks lack a biological process known as genomic imprinting. This means that they don’t require a set of genes from each parent to form an embryo. Consequently, they can reproduce parthenogenetically, as explained by lead study author Dr. Warren Booth.
Parthenogenesis involves a female combining her own genes to simulate fertilization. An egg fuses with a polar body (containing nearly identical chromosomes to the mother) that’s produced at the same time, initiating embryo formation. This phenomenon, prevalent in ants and bees, has persisted for millions of years. However, it also brings challenges due to limited genetic diversity, making populations more susceptible to diseases and environmental threats.
Observed in more than 80 species, including birds, fish, and lizards, parthenogenesis in vertebrates remains relatively uncommon. The switch to this reproductive strategy in certain sexually reproducing animals is believed to be a response to adversity triggered by factors like hormonal changes or adverse conditions.
While this unprecedented “virgin birth” discovery in crocodiles sparks more questions than answers, it offers potential insights into the evolutionary history of parthenogenesis. It paves the way for further studies into why and how this unique reproductive strategy is employed by different species.
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