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Local Dragon Didn’t Breed With Male, Had a Baby Anyway

Photograph by Skip Brown, Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

A female Asian water dragon at Smithsonian’s National Zoo produced a baby two years ago “despite never breeding with a male or receiving genetic material,” the zoo announced this week.

This seeming miracle, which the Washington Post reported this morning, is due to parthenogenesis, or reproduction without a sex cell being fertilized, scientists at the zoo confirmed along with partners at the St. Louis Zoo and the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia.

The mother dragon came to the facility as an “animal ambassador” rather than breeding stock, but she produced eggs anyway, the zoo explains. Keepers at the Reptile Discovery Center began incubating the eggs, which produced embryos. None survived except one born on August 24, 2016. While sexual reproduction would produce offspring with two alleles, or variant forms of genes, DNA analysis showed the offspring had only one allele: their mother’s.

Parthenogenesis occurs in some plants and insects. It’s rare in vertebrates, and this is the first published instance it occurring in Asian water dragons. Fortunately for those of us with ambitions to be useful in the continuation of our own species, parthenogenesis has not really caught on yet with humans, though a report from the ’90s suggests further inquiry is warranted.

The miracle lizard will be of breeding age next year, and the zoo says it plans to “monitor any eggs the daughter produces in future for signs of fertility.”

And now, some funny tweets.

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.