Zoo celebrates virgin birth of Komodo dragons

/ Source: The Associated Press

Scientists unveiled five squirmy black and yellow Komodo dragons Wednesday that were the product of a virgin birth, predicting that the hatchlings offered hope for breeding the endangered species.

Flora, the Komodo dragon, has produced five hatchlings although a male has never been close to her, the proud staff at the Chester Zoo said.

“Flora is oblivious to the excitement she has caused, but we are delighted to say she is now a mum and dad,” said a delighted Kevin Buley, the zoo’s curator of lower vertebrates and invertebrates.

The shells began cracking last week, after an eight-month gestation period, which culminated with arrival on Tuesday of the fifth dragon. Two more eggs remained to be hatched.

“The implications for conservation breeding programs are enormous because this opens up a new way that animals can potentially colonize an island,” Buley said. “A female could swim to a new island, lay a clutch of eggs, then mate with sons and be sexually producing normally within a generation.”

The dragons range from 16 inches to nearly 18 inches long (40 to 45 centimeters) and weigh between 3½ and 4½ ounces (100 to 125 grams), Buley said.

Eating crickets and locusts
The hatchlings were in good health and feeding on a diet of crickets and locusts.

When fully grown to 10 feet (3 meters) long and weighing about 300 pounds (135 kilograms), they’ll be capable of eating a whole pig or deer at one sitting, hooves and all.

That ravenous appetite explains why Flora isn’t allowed anywhere near her offspring.

“No maternal instincts exist in Komodos so it is perfectly natural to keep them as far apart as possible,” Buley said. “She would try to eat anything that comes in front of her.”

About 70 reptile species including snakes and lizards are known to reproduce asexually in a process known as parthenogenesis. But Flora’s virginal conception, and that of another Komodo dragon in April at the London Zoo, are the first documented in Komodo dragons.

The two virgin conceptions were announced in September in a scientific paper in the journal Nature.

Endangered lizards
Komodos are native to the arid volcanic Lesser Sunda Islands in Indonesia, and are named for the island where they were discovered in 1910.

The giant lizards are considered endangered, with fewer than 4,000 surviving in the wild and facing encroachment from humans.