Danielle LeVee, Global Animal

Parthenogenesis, a form of asexual reproduction sometimes referred to as “virgin birth” occurs naturally in plants, some invertebrates such as nematodes and aphids, and vertebrates including certain fish, reptiles, amphibians, and birds. Now pit vipers are known to reproduce without a male mate. 

Photo Credit: TomSpinker via Flickr

Researchers had believed that snakes, like other vertebrates, would only reproduce asexually in captivity when males are absent, thus labeling parthenogenesis as a captive syndrome. Why reproduce asexually when producing sexually is an option?

It is unclear whether this form of reproduction is a mistake caused by a virus or the only way these particular snakes can reproduce. “Any answer is pure speculation at this point,” according to biologist the study’s team leader Warren Booth.

This finding is both an advantage and a disadvantage in the conservation of snakes. It is beneficial that females can reproduce and continue their species survival if deprived of a male mate. Reproduction in this case is also quicker and more efficient. However, the offspring created by parthenogenesis will inherit homogeneous alleles (two copies of the same gene), which if the gene is harmful, will cause the offspring to inherit the adverse trait. As generations progress, genetic diversity will dwindle and mutations will proliferate.

So whether parthenogenesis is beneficial or not for a species is dependent on the species’s population and the stability of the environment. But if not beneficial for the species, there would be no reason for the snake to want to produce asexually. All in all, it’s always appealing to have that reproductive choice.