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Imminent virgin birth for world's largest lizard at Chester Zoo

Armen Hareyan's picture

The story of the Virgin Mary is what gives meaning to Christmas. And now, Chester Zoo has a nativity story of its own - and a dragon's tale that promises to turn the traditional concepts of the birds and the bees on its head.

In a ground-breaking paper to be published in the scientific journal Nature next week, Chester Zoo has helped to prove that Komodo Dragons - the world's largest lizard - can reproduce in the absence of a male, parthenogenetically.

The key to this discovery lies with Flora - one of the zoo's two female Komodo Dragons - and began when Flora laid a clutch of 11 eggs in May this year.

The zoo's reptile keepers placed the eggs in an incubator. Three of the eggs collapsed but, once opened, were found to contain embryos - showing that they were fertile.

Fertile dragon's eggs are not in themselves unusual, but what made this news surprising was that virgin Flora has never been mixed with, or mated by, a male dragon. Scientists at Liverpool University under the guidance of Dr Phill Watts, carried out genetic fingerprinting on the three eggs and on the adult Komodo Dragons at the zoo. This 'paternity' testing proved that Flora was indeed both the 'mother' and the 'father' of the fertile eggs.

Kevin Buley, Chester Zoo's Curator of Lower Vertebrates and Invertebrates and a co-author of the Nature paper, said: "Although other lizard species are known to be able to reproduce by parthenogenesis, this is the first time this has ever been reported in Komodo Dragons."

"Essentially what we have here is an imminent virgin birth and, because the eggs were laid back in May, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the incubating eggs could hatch around Christmas time. We will be on the look out for shepherds, wise men and an unusually bright star in the sky over Chester Zoo."

The Nature paper demonstrates that, whilst the fertile eggs are not identical clones of Flora, the overall genetic make-up of the clutch reconstructs the genetic make-up of the mother exactly, and that no other Komodo Dragon could have been involved in the production of the embryos.

"This discovery has very important implications for understanding how reptiles are potentially able to colonise new areas. Theoretically a female Komodo Dragon in the wild could swim to a new island and then establish an entirely new population of dragons. The genetics of parthenogenesis in lizards means that all her hatchlings would have to be male. These would grow up to mate with their own mother and therefore, within one generation, there would potentially be a population able to reproduce normally on the new island," added Kevin.

By Chester Zoo

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