Science  21 Sep 2012:
Vol. 337, Issue 6101, pp. 1440

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  1. Hail Mary: Reptile Style


    Virgin births aren't unheard-of among animals that reproduce sexually. But they are rare and were thought to occur only in captivity. So researchers studying the breeding habits of wild cottonmouth and copperhead snakes—types of North American pit viper—were surprised to discover that 2.5% and 5%, respectively, of the litters produced by wild female snakes did not involve males. “To my knowledge this is the first time it has been described from a wild-caught litter,” says geneticist Kevin Feldheim of The Field Museum in Chicago who was not involved with the work. While evaluating data from two long-term studies of breeding in snakes, Warren Booth of the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma and colleagues studied 22 copperhead litters collected in Connecticut, and 37 cottonmouth litters collected in Georgia. They noticed that two litters—one from each species—were very small and had developmental failures that might be signs of virgin births, or facultative parthenogenesis. Genetic testing proved that both litters had no input from males, the team reported online on 12 September in Biology Letters. The next step, Feldheim says, is to see whether those all-male litters are fertile.