Nature always finds a way, as discovered by an intern working at the Cape Girardeau Nature Center in Missouri when a female snake reproduced all by herself… twice. It surprised both attending staff and experts that a simple yellow-bellied water snake has proven that it does not need a male companion to produce offspring.
Now dubbed the “Virgin Mary of the reptile world”, Thelma has showed herself entirely capable of producing young even after being depleted of a male counterpart for as long as 8 years. This astounding phenomenon has not happened just once, but twice.
The first time, in 2014, researchers at the Missouri Department of Conservation have discovered that the yellow-bellied black snake gave birth to little younglings alone, with some of them still alive today, in well health and on display at the conservation center. This year’s baby snakes, however, did not survive.
According to herpetologist, Jeff Briggler, this is an incredibly rare occurrence even in other kinds of snakes, such as copperheads, cottonmouths and Burmese pythons, and more common among insects, amphibians, fish or reptiles, but not mammals. The yellow-bellied water snake gives birth to live young, instead of laying eggs down for hatching.
The process of asexual reproduction is called parthenogenesis, implying the female to reproduce by herself, without any genetic involvement from a male. It’s essentially a process where cells called ‘polar bodies’ start behaving like sperm and fuse with the female’s egg, which triggers cell division.
The phenomenon is known to happen routinely in only one snake, namely the flowerpot snake (or the Brahminy blind snake), according to biology professor Robert Powell, who is an expert in the matter at Avila University. It is believed that female snakes can store sperm for a while and then reproduce, but experts have stated it’s unlikely that this is the case with Thelma.
Usually, the sperm can be held in storage for around a period of one year, with the maximum ever recorded reaching 3 years. That is certainly far away from the 8 year long isolation the yellow-bellied water snake has seen from any male specimen. And that depletion from male companionship might’ve been exactly what has led her to reproducing by herself.
It’s truly a wonder what certain creatures are capable of when placed in captivity, and it leads to discoveries of their true abilities of evolving and progressing, even when everything else fights against them.
According to naturalist Jordi Brotoski, this seems like a “reproductive survival technique”, and that she has reached an age where she wants to produce offspring, male or no male. And, apparently, she can.
Image source: dfwurbanwildlife.com