New scientific research has shown that asexual reproduction or “virgin births,” a process typically associated with microscopic organisms, is occurring all over the animal kingdom. The study observed the process even amongst complex vertebrates such as the iconic California Condor, a unique species of North American vulture.
The phenomena of asexual reproduction have been observed previously in a variety of large vertebrate species, including sharks, snakes, and other reptiles. So far, most observations of these virgin birth events have been confined to animals kept in captivity, typically occurring when a male specimen has been absent from the enclosure for many years. This does not mean that these incidents do not occur in the wild, but it is much more difficult to monitor genetic data for a large, dispersed pool of wild animals than female animals in captivity that suddenly produce offspring without a male ever-present in their space.
This manner of reproduction is even more uncommonly seen the more complex the species of animal is, and so far has not been observed in any mammal species, due to the process of genomic imprinting that cannot occur under asexual reproductive conditions. However, a type of asexual reproduction known as parthenogenesis, can and commonly does occur as the type of asexual reproduction observed in other vertebrate species, representing the type of asexual reproduction seen in California Condors. Parthenogenesis is a process in which a polar body, a cell byproduct of meiosis (the process that creates an egg cell), combines with an egg cell to create an offspring that is always female and genetically similar to the mother without being identical. This fascinating process occurs without the presence of any sperm.
By analyzing the genetic material of captive condor offspring, researchers at San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance discovered that two condors had been produced through parthenogenesis, as they contained no genetic material from any male condor. Unfortunately, one condor died at age 2 and the other at age 7. Despite these deaths, the fact that the condors were able to survive their first years is unique, considering that most avian parthenogenesis events result in inviable offspring.
Additionally, California Condors reach sexual maturity around the age of 6-8 years, meaning that one of these offspring could have been able to produce offspring of its own. While more studies are needed on the ability of asexual offspring to reproduce themselves, the growth and development of these parthenogenetic condors provide potential evidence that asexual reproduction could represent a part of condor recovery efforts, an urgent priority for ornithologists as only about 500 Condors remain in the wild. At the very least, the findings represent an important venture for further scientific inquiry.
Not only could parthenogenetic research represent a significant aspect of California Condor conservation, but very little research exists on parthenogenetic animals as a whole. Given that most observations and studies on parthenogenic animals s, been conducted with captive animals, there are likely many more cases of asexual reproduction that have yet to be discovered, widening even further the possibilities for consequential scientific exploration.
In a world where our current species extinction rate is 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the typical baseline extinction rate, any new finding on species reproduction potential represents a positive for animal and plant conservation. New findings on the California Condor present hope that a variety of outlets exists to save certain critically endangered species. As scientists continue to push forward with compelling discoveries on intricacies of the animal kingdom, we are reminded just how resilient and innovative animals and evolutionary techniques are, even in the face of grave challenges.
Sophie Liebel for Times Media Mexico