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Researchers: A virgin crocodile made herself pregnant in a first for her species


Posted: Sunday, June 11, 2023. 6:58 am CST.

By Breaking Belize News Staff: In a groundbreaking revelation, researchers have reported the first documented instance of a crocodile self-replicating, resulting in offspring genetically identical to the mother. The findings, highlighted in a study led by evolutionary biologist Warren Booth of Virginia Tech, were published on Wednesday in Biology Letters, a journal of the Royal Society, as reported by CBS News.

The extraordinary discovery unfolded at Costa Rica’s Parque Reptilandia when officials found a nest containing 14 eggs within the enclosure of a female crocodile. The reptile, having lived in isolation since the age of two, was 18 years old when she laid the eggs.

“Normally, given the period of isolation from mates, these eggs would be considered non-viable and discarded,” the researchers reported. However, seven eggs appearing viable were collected and incubated.

Booth explained to CBS News the signs of viability in crocodile eggs, “Viable eggs are often bright white, whereas infertile ones may be more yellowish. When held up to a flashlight, viable crocodile eggs will have a distinct band, whereas non-viable ones will simply glow yellow.”

This unprecedented discovery led officials in Costa Rica to reach out to U.S. experts specializing in parthenogenesis, the process through which organisms reproduce without fertilization. The term originates from the Greek words “parthenos,” meaning “virgin,” and “genesis,” meaning “origin,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Booth and co-author Gordon Schuett of Georgia State University, known for their extensive work on parthenogenesis, were consulted.

While previously considered a rarity, virgin births have been observed in various species, including sawfish, snakes, sharks, and birds. The process is more commonplace in the plant and insect domains, allowing a female organism to replicate itself without male fertilization.

Notably, a 2021 study reported that California condors could undergo virgin births. Genetic testing conducted by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance confirmed that two male chicks hatched from unfertilized eggs in 2001 and 2009 were genetically related to their mothers.

In the case of the isolated crocodile in Costa Rica, three months after the eggs were discovered, only one egg contained a fully formed but nonviable fetus. DNA analysis later determined that the fetus was 99.9% genetically identical to its mother. The researchers suggest that virgin births might be more prevalent in crocodiles than previously recognized.

The researchers advised in their study, “These findings, therefore, suggest that eggs should be assessed for potential viability when males are absent.”

They further suggested a possible common evolutionary origin for these occurrences in reptiles, birds, and now crocodiles. The discovery provides valuable insights into the reproductive capabilities of extinct archosaurian relatives of crocodilians and birds, such as members of Pterosauria and Dinosauria.

Crocodiles are positioned at the base of a lineage known as archosaurs, with birds being the most recent members, Booth informed CBS News. They all use the same intricate form of parthenogenesis or terminal fusion automixis, which is unlikely to have developed independently.

“The cool aspect is that in between crocodiles and birds are the pterosaurs and dinosaurs,” Booth told CBS News. “Given that all of these lineages use the same mechanism, it is highly likely that pterosaurs and dinosaurs also had the capacity to produce parthenogenetically.”


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