LONDON (Reuters) - Flora, a pregnant Komodo dragon living in a British zoo, is expecting eight babies in what scientists said on Wednesday could be a Christmas virgin birth.
Flora has never mated, or even mixed, with a male dragon, and 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," Kevin Buley of Chester Zoo in England said in an interview.
He said the incubating eggs could hatch around Christmas.
Parthenogenesis has occurred in other lizard species, but Buley and his team said this was the first time it has been shown in Komodo dragons -- the world's largest lizards.
Scientists at Liverpool University in northern England discovered Flora had had no male help after doing genetic tests on three eggs that collapsed after being put in an incubator.
The tests on the embryos and on Flora, her sister and 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 it (parthenogenesis) has never been seen in such a large species," Buley explained.
A Komodo dragon at London Zoo gave birth earlier this year after being separated from males for more than two years.
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 which 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," said Buley.
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," Buley added.