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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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News Shorts
Beef production is more damaging to the environment than other protein sources, study suggests

Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that beef production is approximately 10 times more damaging to the environment than any other form of livestock.

It has long been known that beef has a greater impact than other meats, but this paper is the first to quantify the scale in a comparative way, the BBC reports.

The scientists measured the environment inputs required to produce the main sources of protein. It was found that beef cattle need 28 times more land and 11 times more irrigation water than pork, poultry, eggs or dairy.

Although the study was based on US data, researchers say that the conclusions are applicable in Europe.

Speaking to the BBC, professor Mark Sutton, from the UK's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said: "The overall environmental footprint of beef is particularly large because it combines a low production efficiency with very high volume,"

"The result is that the researchers estimate that over 60 per cent of the environmental burden of livestock in the US results from beef. Although the exact numbers will be different for Europe, the overall message will be similar: cattle dominate the livestock footprint of both Europe and US."