Dr. Hill and students

Wofford professor's research discovers virgin births in wild snakes

Finding receives international, national attention

Snakes 382x255
Virgin births in the wild have been discovered for the first time in copperhead and cottonmouth snakes.

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Virgin births have been found in sexually-reproducing wild vertebrates for the first time, according to research conducted by Wofford College biology professor Dr. Charles F. Smith and colleagues from the University of Tulsa, San Diego State University and Georgia State University.

Their discovery is described in an article published this week in the journal Biology Letters. It has receive quick and widespread exposure nationally and internationally in both scientific and mainstream publications and media outlets, including National Geographic, BBC Nature, MSNBC, CBS News and Discovery News. 

Asexual reproduction is common among invertebrates, animals without backbones, but it rarely occurs in vertebrates. Among sexually-reproducing vertebrates, it has, until now, only been observed in animals in captivity. 

“We documented this for the first time in the wild in two species of closely related pit viper snakes, the cottonmouth and the copperhead,” says Smith, an assistant professor of biology, says. “This is important research because it fundamentally changes how we think about animal reproduction in nature. We now know animals have options beyond sexual reproduction, and this gives us a better understanding of how reproduction occurs in the wild.” 

The researchers collected genetic samples from long-term studies of the snakes -- copperheads from Connecticut and cottonmouths from Georgia. They gathered specimens from 22 litters of copperheads and 37 litters of cottonmouths, both the mothers and their offspring. DNA analysis confirmed that in one litter from each species, the offspring were solely the product of the mother, with no genetic contributions from a father. 

Smith notes that student research in an animal behavior course at Wofford, taught by associate professor of biology Dr. John F. Moeller, was instrumental in supporting the discovery. “This is cutting-edge research normally equated with large research institutions, yet a liberal arts college like Wofford can make major contributions to science and provide exceptional research experiences for our students. Since the fall of 2011, students have been following the progress of the study and helping us.”

Rachel Brittenham, a Wofford senior double majoring in biology and environmental studies, who was involved in the animal behavior lab, says Smith and Moeller “deliberately involved the students in every aspect of the experiment, and really took our observations and input seriously.

“All the science labs at Wofford are known to be hands-on and interactive,” she continues. “In fact, the majority I’ve taken don’t even take place in a classroom – we are constantly outside, experiencing academic concepts first-hand in the environment.”

Brittenham says the students in the lab are excited to see the results of Smith’s research. “We knew he had an incredible opportunity to make progress in a relatively unfamiliar aspect of reptile behavior and reproduction. His group’s discovery is so exciting for the Wofford community and the greater scientific community.”

In the future, the researchers will investigate how well the offspring of virgin births survive and reproduce. It may be that virgin mothers can establish whole area populations of snakes by themselves.

“The next question is, are the offspring fertile?” Smith says. “If they are, it will certainly change completely and forever the way we think about reproduction of animals in the wild.”

News of the research already has appeared in numerous national and international media outlets, including:

Live Science – http://www.livescience.com/23103-virgin-births-common-wild-snakes.html

The Telegraph – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/9539361/Virgin-birth-observed-in-wild-snakes.html

Huffington Post – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/12/virgin-births-in-the-wild_n_1878471.html?utm_hp_ref=green

CBS News – http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-205_162-57511186/virgin-births-may-be-common-in-the-wild-says-study/

BBC Nature – http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/19555550

MSNBC – http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/48995742/ns/technology_and_science-science/#.UFH5hK7YEqg

Scientific American – http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=virgin-births-seen-in-wild-vipers

UK Daily Mail – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2202190/Are-Virgin-births-common-nature-Researchers-snakes-ignore-nearby-males-create-offspring-themselves.html?ito=feeds-newsxml

ScienceNews – http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/345034/title/Wild_snakes_reproduce_without_sex

Discovery News – http://news.discovery.com/animals/snakes-virgin-births-120911.html

International Business Times – http://www.ibtimes.co.in/articles/383390/20120912/asexual-reproduction-virgin-birth-vertebrate-family.htm

Nature – http://www.nature.com/news/virgin-births-seen-in-wild-vipers-1.11397

NBC’s Today Show -- http://todayhealth.today.com/_news/2012/09/13/13846806-heres-why-you-really-do-need-a-man?lite