N.C. State: These snakes skip sex, still reproduce

CorrespondentNovember 15, 2010 

— Birds do it, bees do it, but some snakes might abstain.

In a study published this month in the journal Biology Letters, researchers at N.C. State University's entomology department reveal that some female boa constrictors can reproduce without mating.

The genetic makeup of these snakes defies what scientists had considered possible. Since the early days of reproduction genetics in the 1950s, scientists thought reptiles with these super snakes' chromosomal pairs would die before hatching.

"This boa constrictor upends decades of reproduction theory," said Warren Booth, an NCSU research associate in entomology and lead researcher on the project.

After mating the old-fashioned way and producing a litter of normal babies in 2004, a pet boa constrictor had litters in 2009 and 2010, apparently without mating. Curiously, snakes in those litters all shared unusual color markings, leading scientists to question their paternity.

Genetic testing on the litters showed no evidence of male genes present. What's more, the super snake babies show characteristics thought to be virtually impossible in asexual reptile reproduction: Every one is female, and if she reproduces, she will only be able to make females.

Booth and his team are waiting to see if these offspring are super females like their mother, reproducing without a male.

"The big thing about these findings is that they prove reproduction systems in reptiles and possibly birds are more extraordinary than we ever believed," Booth said.

Does this mean we should soon fear a bonanza of boas?

"Asexual reproduction might make it easier for these snakes to become established somewhere," said Kevin de Quieroz, curator in charge of the Division of Amphibians and Reptiles at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington. But other factors, such as pets being released into the wild, are more likely to lead to successful establishment, he said.

Booth said he is interested in uncoiling more mysteries of reptilian reproduction. "This form of reproduction could be happening more often than we think, but it's simply being overlooked."

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