Virgin lizard birth at Christmas
From correspondents in Paris
December 21, 2006 07:11am
BRITISH zoologists have a Christmas tale of their own to tell – a rare giant lizard, the Komodo dragon, is about to give “virgin birth”.
In a study published in the science journal Nature, they say they have unravelled a mystery surrounding a Komodo dragon named Flora, one of two dragons at Chester Zoo, northern England.
Flora laid 11 eggs in May this year, three of which collapsed. These three eggs were opened and were found to contain embryos, showing they had been fertilised.
But who was the daddy? Flora had never mated with a male dragon or even mixed with one.
DNA tests have now proven that Flora was both the “mother” and “father” of the fertile eggs.
“Although other lizard species are known to be able to self-fertilise, this is the first time this has ever been reported in Komodo dragons,” says one of the co-authors of the paper, Kevin Buley, who is the zoo’s curator of lower vertebrates and invertebrates.
“Essentially, what we have here is an immaculate conception, and because the eggs were laid back in May, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the incubating eggs could hatch around Christmas time.
“We will be on the lookout for shepherds, wise men and an unusually bright star in the sky over Chester Zoo,” he added in a wry reference to the biblical account of Christ’s birth.
Self-fertilisation in this way is called parthenogenesis. Under it, the species makes a copy of its own genetic code.
Zoologists at Thoiry Zoo, west of Paris, announced in April they suspected parthenogenesis was behind the birth of four baby dragons to a female called Sungai.
Sungai normally lives at Thoiry but was sent to London to mate with a male dragon there under a European breeding program.
The Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) is the world’s biggest lizard, with adult males reaching up to three metres long and weighing up to 90 kilos.
The creature is carnivorous, killing goats, deer and other mammals through deadly bacteria in its saliva.
The dragon ambushes and bites its prey and then tracks it for up to two days until it eventually dies from blood poisoning.
The dragon is found on the Indonesian islands of Komodo, Rinca, Gili Motang and Flores, but its numbers have dwindled to around 6000 as a result of poaching and invasive species.
Mr Buley said the discovery had important implications for understanding how the lizard is able to colonise new areas.
“Theoretically, a female Komodo dragon in the wild could swim to a new island and then establish an entirely new population of dragons,” he said.
“The genetics of self-fertilisation in lizards means that all her hatchlings would have to be male.
This would grow up to mate with their own mother and therefore, within one generation, there would potentially be a population able to reproduce normally on the new island.”
Lead author of the Nature paper is Phillip Watts of Britain’s University of Liverpool.
…so does this mean that Jesus was a Komodo dragon? It sure would explain all that stable business..
“Please, mister innkeeper, my wife’s about to give birth, and we’ve ridden all the way here on a donkey, and it’s almost Christmas!
“Bugger off, you’re a Komodo dragon for freak’s sake! You’ll scare all my guests away! And you didn’t ride that donkey, you dragged it here!”
“You did! I saw you! It was in your bloody great gob!”
“Mary here was on top of it”
“That’s a completely different thing. Riding a donkey implies that the donkey propelled itself with somebody on its back giving it some degree of direction. I’ll tell you what you did – you bit its neck off, sat your wife on it, and tugged it along the ground by its ears!”
“I told you it looked easier in the movies, Mary…”
“Arrrgh! Here comes an egg!”
“Oh christ… Can you help us or not?”
“Not with all them eggs knocking about… Where’d she hide them?”
“I dunno. They’re not even mine… Wow, they just keep coming… Incredible…”
“Tell you what – I’ll let you stay in the barn. Just stay away from my horses. And no guests!”
“Fine, fine… Come on Mary… No, I’m not carrying them for you! They’re your damn eggs! Carry them yourself… Oh, now look what you’ve done… It’s all over the place! Do you have any more?
“Just this one”
“Good. I’d be incredibly pissed off we came all this way just to spill your eggs all over the place… Now, if they’re not mine, whose are they”
“Er… Joe, I have something to tell you…”
(And so began the life of Jesus, King of the Dragons!)