Fri, Dec 22, 2006 - Page 1 News List

Virgin Komodo dragon awaits birth


As Christmas approaches, a virgin mother is anxiously awaiting the arrival of her offspring. She's Flora, the Komodo dragon.

In an evolutionary twist, Flora has managed to become pregnant all on her own without any male help. It would seem the timing is auspicious: the seven baby Komodo dragons are due this festive season.

"We were blown away when we realized what she'd done," said Kevin Buley, a reptile expert at Flora's home at the Chester Zoo. "But we certainly won't be naming any of the hatchlings Jesus."

Other reptiles reproduce asexually in a process known as parthenogenesis. But Flora's virginal conception, and that of another Komodo dragon earlier this year at the London Zoo -- Sungai -- are the first documented cases among Komodo dragons.

The reptiles, renowned for their intelligence, are native to Indonesia. They are the world's largest lizards and have no natural predators.

The cases of Flora and Sungai are described in a paper published yesterday in Nature.

Parthenogenesis is a process in which eggs become embryos without male fertilization. It has been seen in about 70 species, including snakes and lizards. Scientists are unsure whether female Komodo dragons have always had this latent ability to reproduce or if this is a new evolutionary development.

Flora, 8, has been raised in captivity and lives with a younger sister.

Flora's keepers first became suspicious in May, when she laid 25 eggs. Though it's not uncommon for female dragons to lay eggs without mating, such eggs are not usually fertilized. About half of Flora's eggs looked like real eggs -- they were very white and had solid shells. When three of them collapsed, scientists took a closer look.

"We saw blood vessels and a small embryo," Buley said. "And we knew immediately that Flora had fertilized the eggs herself."

Genetic testing showed that the baby dragons' DNA could only have come from Flora.

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