Yellow-bellied Water Snake Mom Gives ‘Virgin Birth’

Earlier this month, a yellow-bellied water snake at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Centre gave birth to baby-snakes even though she hasn’t had “relations” with a male snake in at least eight years.

This is for the second time this snake had a so-called “virgin birth”.  But this birthing practice is not at all astounding as they may seem. Yellow-bellied water snakes are one of many species of reptile that can reproduce through an odd process of reproduction known as parthenogenesis. Several other snake species including timber rattle-snakes, copperheads, cottonmouths, Burmese pythons, common boas, green anacondas and pit vipers follow the same process of reproduction.

Sometimes female snakes are unable to find good enough male snakes to fertilize their eggs then they take matters into their own “hands,” rather than allowing their eggs to go to waste and thus conserve their finite supply of eggs. In some cases, they use the stored sperm from males they mated with before to fertilize their own mature eggs. Sometimes female snakes choose the process of asexual reproduction. To continue this process they carry out meiosis, or the normal division of cells that usually results in the formation of four egg-progenitor cells, one of which becomes the egg. In normal case, the female’s body reabsorbs the other three egg-progenitor cells, but in parthenogenesis, one of those female cells behaves like sperm, which fertilizes the egg. The result is an embryo, containing the genetic material only from the mother.

How the yellow-bellied water snake at MDC reproduced without help from any males, is yet to be disclosed. It may be possible that she stored sperm for eight years and utilized it to fertilize her own eggs. However if that’s the case, she will set a new record of storing sperm for longest period of time, as the longest a snake has been known to store sperm is for five years so far.

The researchers are now trying to find out the actual process of reproduction of the mama-snake. The geneticists will analyze the DNA of the baby snakes to determine if they possessed DNA from both a male and female snake, or if the female snake did all the heavy lifting by herself.

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Arunima Maiti

Arunima Maiti

Biomedical scientist with special interest in reproductive biology.

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