Shark "Virgin Birth" Confirmed

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"Virgin Births"

All non-mammal vertebrate species are theoretically capable of parthenogenesis, scientists say. Examples have been documented in komodo dragons (read story), pythons, rattlesnakes, chickens, and turkeys.

Parthenogenesis is not possible in humans because if all the genetic material comes from the mother, certain genes will be switched off, and the embryo won't develop.

"For sharks in captivity, [parthenogenesis] has probably occurred more times than has been documented," says Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida.

The question then becomes, is parthenogenesis a type of developmental anomaly or a response to the female shark not having a mate in captivity?

"The fact that only one shark embryo was formed may suggest that this is more a case of an egg developmental aberration rather than a physiological response to the lack of a mate," said Hueter, who was not involved with the study.

No Variation

Normally, an embryo is formed when an egg containing half its chromosomes is fertilized by a sperm containing the other half.

When an egg cell is formed, a plant or female animal also produces three other cells called polar bodies. In the type of parthenogenesis observed in sharks, one of those cells behaves like a sperm and fertilizes the egg.

"But that cell is genetically identical to the egg," Chapman said. "So that's where you lose a lot of genetic variation."

Offspring produced by parthenogenesis are not exact clones of their mothers, however, because the genetic material is mixed differently.

Still, researchers believe the risk of congenital defects increases in animals whose DNA lack genetic variation.

"There's an increased risk of having a weakened immune system and there's a risk of reproductive abnormalities," Chapman said. "But in some cases, they'll be able to survive."

The scientists have not ruled out the possibility that increased stress from the abnormal pregnancy contributed to Tidbit's death.

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