Yes, some animals can have offspring without a partner. Here’s how it works

By The Associated Press

A boa constrictor in the UK gave birth to 14 babies – without a partner.

Is this a miracle? The result of a secret rendezvous? Probably not. The females of a species have the ability to reproduce asexually, that is, without the sperm of a male. This process is called parthenogenesis, after the Greek words for “virgin” and “birth.”

Some plants and insects can do this, as can some amphibians, reptiles, birds and fish. A stingray named Charlotte, who was thought to have become pregnant through this method, died this week at a North Carolina aquarium, though she never gave birth and it is unclear if she was ever pregnant.

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Some wasps, crustaceans and lizards reproduce exclusively by parthenogenesis, but in other species this is rare and is usually observed in captivity.

This is more likely to occur in situations where females are separated from males, says Demian Chapman, director of the Sharks & Rays Conservation Research Program at the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida.

The boa in Britain, a 6-foot-long, 13-year-old Brazilian rainbow boa named Ronaldo, gave birth to her young last week after having no contact with other snakes for at least nine years, according to City of Portsmouth College, which keeps the snake.

Parthenogenesis can occur, for example, when a female’s egg fuses with another cell, often a cell left over from a process that allows the female to create the egg. This cell, called a polar body, gives the egg the genetic information it normally receives from a sperm. The cell begins to divide, and this leads to the creation of an embryo.

It’s unclear how widespread parthenogenesis is in the wild, Chapman said, but it has occurred outside of captivity in smalltooth sawfish, an endangered species in Florida’s coastal waters.

“We believe that females sometimes reproduce in this way because they have not been able to find a male due to their small numbers,” Chapman said.

According to Chapman, the offspring from parthenogenesis have less genetic variation, which can lead to developmental problems.

“A litter produced by sexual reproduction is usually much larger than a litter produced by parthenogenesis, if you’re dealing with an animal that gives birth to litters,” Chapman said. “And in that parthenogenetic litter, you often see individuals that aren’t developing properly in some way.”

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