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Virgin birth found in wild vertebrates
Snake
First time "evolutionary novelty" found in wild animals

Researchers in the US have found a form of virgin birth in wild vertebrates for the first time, after genetically analysing pregnant females from two snake species.

They found that North American pit vipers reproduced without a male in a phenomenon called facultative parthenogenesis, previously only found in captive species, and scientists say the findings could change our understanding of animal reproduction and vertebrate evolution.

Thought to be extremely rare for normally sexual species, asexual reproduction was first identified in domestic chickens and, in recent years, reported in a few snake, shark, lizard and bird species.

However, all such "virgin births" have occurred in captivity to females kept away from males, and have in general been considered "evolutionary novelties."

Professor Warren Booth, from the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, worked with a team to investigate virgin births in copperhead and cottonmouth female pit-vipers, where males were present.

Professor Booth, lead author of the paper published in the Royal Society's Biological Letters, said of the: "I think the frequency is what really shocked us. That's between 2.5 and 5% of litters produced in these populations may be resulting from parthenogenesis."

He added: "That's quite remarkable for something that has been considered an evolutionary novelty."

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