January 24, 2007
Virgin Birth of 5 Komodo Dragons at British Zoo
MANCHESTER, England -- A British zoo announced Wednesday the virgin birth of five Komodo dragons, giving scientists new hope for the captive breeding of the endangered species.
In an evolutionary twist, the newborns' eight-year-old mother Flora shocked staff at Chester Zoo in northern England when she became pregnant without ever having a male partner or even being exposed to the opposite sex.
"Flora is oblivious to the excitement she has caused but we are delighted to say she is now a mum and dad," said a delighted Kevin Buley, the zoo's curator of lower vertebrates and invertebrates.
The shells began cracking last week, after an eight-month gestation period, which culminated with the arrival on Tuesday of the fifth black and yellow colored dragon.
The dragons are between 15.5 and 17.5 inches and weigh between 3.5 and 5.3 ounces, said Buley, who leads the zoo's expert care team.
He said the reptiles are in good health and enjoying a diet of crickets and locusts.
Other reptile species reproduce asexually in a process known as parthenogenesis. But Flora's virginal conception, and that of another Komodo dragon earlier this year at the London Zoo, are the first time it has been documented in a Komodo dragon.
The evolutionary breakthrough could have far-reaching consequences for endangered species.
Captive breeding could ensure the survival of the world's largest lizards, with fewer than 4,000 Komodos left in the wild.
Scientists hope the discovery will pave the way to finding other species capable of self fertilization.
While it wasn't unusual for female dragons to lay eggs without mating, scientists understood they were witnessing something important when they realized Flora's eggs had been fertilized.
DNA paternity tests confirmed the lack of male input, although the brood are not exact clones of their mother.
Parthenogenesis - where eggs become embryos without male fertilization - had only been noted once before in a Komodo dragon. Genetic tests showed that Sungai, a resident of London Zoo, was the sole parent to offspring last April.