- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2006

From combined dispatches

LONDON — Flora, a pregnant Komodo dragon living in a British zoo, is expecting eight babies in what scientists said yesterday could be a Christmas virgin birth.

Flora has never mated or even mixed with a male dragon, and she fertilized all the eggs herself, a process culminating in parthenogenesis, or virgin birth. Other lizards do this, but scientists only recently found that Komodo dragons do, too.

“Nobody in their wildest dreams expected this. But you have a female dragon on her own. She produces a clutch of eggs, and those eggs turn out to be fertile. It is nature finding a way,” said Kevin Buley of the Chester Zoo in England.

He said the incubating eggs could hatch around Christmas. “But we certainly won’t be naming any of the hatchlings Jesus.”

Parthenogenesis has occurred in other lizard species, but Mr. Buley and his team said, this was the first time it has been shown in Komodo dragons — the world’s largest lizards.

The reptiles, renowned for their intelligence, are native to Indonesia. They have no natural predators.

Scientists at Liverpool University in northern England discovered Flora, 8, had no male help after doing genetic tests on three eggs that collapsed after being put in an incubator.

The tests on the embryos, on Flora and younger sister Nessie and on other dragons confirmed that Komodo dragons can reproduce through self-fertilization.

“Those genetic tests confirmed absolutely that Flora was both the mother and the father of the embryos. It completely blew us away because [parthenogenesis] has never been seen in such a large species,” Mr. Buley explained.

Sungai, a Komodo dragon at London Zoo, gave birth to four hatchlings in April after being separated from males for more than two years. After their births, Sungai went on to mate normally with a male dragon, producing another baby dragon.

Scientists thought she had been able to store sperm from her earlier encounter with a male, but after hearing about Flora’s eggs, researchers conducted tests that showed her eggs were also produced without male help.

“You have two institutions within a few short months of each other having a previously unheard-of event. It is really quite unprecedented,” Mr. Buley said.

The scientists, reporting the discovery in the science journal Nature, said it could help them understand how reptiles colonize new areas. A female dragon could, for instance, swim to another island and establish a new colony on her own.

“The genetics of self-fertilization in lizards means that all her hatchlings would have to be male. These 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,” Mr. Buley added.

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