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Virgin Births

06 Jan

It is not unusual for offspring to come from a single parent organism. This is the preferred method for the vast majority of living organisms. Simple, efficient, safe, and guarantee’d no worries about your partner’s current disposition. Nice. But among our close vertebrate phylum, asexual reproduction (known as parthenogenesis for us) is a bit of an oddity. However, it has been seen before.

Most recently, the BBC did a short segment on virgin births in sharks. It’s not unusual, although the fact that the most recent virgin mother just keeps doing it is cause for interest, since these are supposed to be rare events. A number of different lizards can produce parthenogenic offspring too, including the giant komodo dragon. In both of these cases the asexual reproduction is theorized to put the species at an advantage during tough times. The moms (who can only bear daughters) could theoretically rebound the population from seemingly unsustainable numbers.

Among birds and mammals, however, parthenogenesis is almost completely unknown. Although that is not to say that there haven’t been stories. In 1188 AD, Gerald of Wales wrote that geese could produce fatherless offspring in the Topographia Hiberniae.

There are here many birds that are called “Barnacles” [barnacoe] which in a wonderful way Nature unnaturally produces; they are like wild geese but smaller.  For they are born at first like pieces of gum on logs of timber washed by the waves.   Then enclosed in shells of a free form they hang by their beaks as if from the moss clinging to the wood and so at length in process of time obtaining a sure covering of feathers, they either dive off into the waters or fly away into free air. . .

I have myself seen many times with my own eyes more than a thousand minute corpuscles of this kind of bird hanging to one log on the shore of the sea, enclosed in shells and already formed. . . . Wherefore in certain parts of Ireland bishops and religious men in times of fast are used to eat these birds as not flesh nor being born of the flesh. . .

Like the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, the geese seemed miraculous in origin and more plant-like than animal. Some apparently tried to use this anecdote to convince Jews of the virgin birth of Christ, along with also justifying the consumption of gooseflesh during Lent. However, in 1215 Pope Innocent III ruled that, fatherless or not, geese were geese and off limits.

Mammals are trickier. We have actually seen parthenogenesis in rabbits and mice, but only under heavy experimentation and developmental complications seem to arise in lab studies. In the early 2000’s a Korean scientist named Hoo Suk Wang proclaimed that he had discovered a method of inducing parthenogenesis in humans but was quickly discredited and ousted from the scientific community when it turned out he was a fraud and embezzler.

If Hoo Suk Wang had been telling the truth this might have proven to be a groundshaking development in developmental studies and reproductive technology. However, it seems that, for now, virgin births in humans will simply remain a facet of religion, not science.

Sources: BBCFordham.edu, Scientific AmericanWikipedia

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1 Comment

Posted by on January 6, 2012 in Natural History

 

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One response to “Virgin Births

  1. neutrino_cannon

    February 13, 2012 at 10:00 am

    Parthenogenesis is also known in turkeys:

    http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1350/can-turkeys-reproduce-without-benefit-of-sex

    Cecil didn’t mention that, in the case of birds, a female capable of parthenogenesis would have some male offspring in each clutch. This is because in birds, it’s males with the homozygous sex chromosomes and females with the heterozygous ones; the opposite of mammals.

     

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