for National Geographic News
A virgin birth is expected this Christmas, though this particular nativity scene will be set in a zoo instead of a stable.
That's because the virgin in question is Flora the Komodo dragon, a giant lizard at Chester Zoo in England that has laid fertile eggs despite never having had a mate.
DNA tests confirmed Flora was the sole parent, says Chester Zoo curator of lower vertebrates Kevin Buley.
"Essentially what we have here is an immaculate conception," he said, adding that the eggs could hatch as soon as Christmas.
"We will be on the look-out for shepherds, wise men, and an unusually bright star in the sky over Chester Zoo," he joked.
Flora, along with another female Komodo dragon from the London Zoo, represent the first known cases of virgin birth in the world's largest lizard, according to researchers.
The two reptiles are examples of a process called parthenogenesis, in which offspring are produced without fertilization by a male, according to a report in the current issue of the journal Nature.
Single-parent reproduction is hardly ever seen in such complex animals, having been documented in just 0.1 percent of vertebrates, the study team says.
The finding that Komodo dragons are capable of self-fertilization may open the way for many more such discoveries in other animals, says team member Richard Gibson, curator of herpetology at the London Zoo.
Virgin birth, he says, is "considered a very rare phenomenon, but the fact that we've got these two lizards suggests it's not as rare as we thought. We recorded it in two unrelated females within the space of a year in two different collections."
Survivor Island, Without Sex
Like Flora, the Komodo dragon at the London Zoo, named Sungai, was also shown by genetic tests to be the sole parent to her offspring, which hatched last April.
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