Eight years is a long time to go without a bit of male attention. But that hasn’t been a problem for a female yellow-bellied watersnake in Missouri.
The virgin snake has had two babies, all on her own, and just gave birth to her third. The most recent of her offspring — which didn’t survive — was discovered by intern Kyle Morton at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center.
One day, he found soft, round objects in the snake’s cage and immediately thought someone was pulling his leg, he told the El Dorado Springs Sun.
“I thought, ‘what joker put tomatoes in here for the snake,'” he recalled
They weren’t tomatoes, but eggs. Naturalist Jordi Brostoski discovered the snake’s last two virgin births and was just as confused by the find.
“At first I thought the snake had regurgitated something until I looked at it closer. That’s when I realized what had happened and then the hatchling snakes surprised me by slithering under the bedding in the cage.”
A virgin birth seems like a miracle, but there’s a perfectly logical — but no less mysterious and incredible — reason behind the snake’s ability to reproduce without a mate. It’s something called parthenogenesis, a type of asexual reproduction in which babies are born from unfertilized eggs, herpetologist Jeff Briggler said.
Fish, amphibians, birds, and reptiles have this singular ability, but it’s not seen in mammals and, until now, never before seen in yellow-bellied watersnakes, The Associated Press added.
It’s possible that the virgin snake stored away some sperm in her body for a later date and that’s why she’s been able to reproduce. But sperm storage has a one-year expiration date, and this snake has been in captivity for eight years without a male companion, noted naturalist Michelle Dandecker. Snake expert Robert Powell tends to agree.
“When you run into situations like this, you always wonder, ‘Is that a possibility?. If nothing else, it’s an interesting phenomena. Whether this is long-term storage or parthenogenesis, it’s cool. Just another sign that nature works in mysterious ways.”
Scientists have long believed that such virgin births in captivity were caused by sperm storage, but that’s quickly being debunked in many cases. And Briggler said that scientists will likely soon discover that parthenogenesis is more common in nature that anyone ever thought possible. (This smalltooth sawfish was also recently found to be capable of it.)
“This is the way you make discoveries when you keep things in captivity,” said outreach and education regional supervisor A.J. Hendershott. “You learn things about what they’re capable of.”
The snake’s other two babies are doing well; they are working as educational reptiles at the Cape Nature Center. And both are boys, another odd fact about parthenogenesis — most of the species who are capable of virgin births have males.
[Photo Courtesy Dmytro Zinkevych / Shutterstock]