It’s been a rough couple of weeks for one green anaconda.
The snake spent the past 10 years with everyone at North Georgia Zoo and Farm in Cleveland thinking she’s a male, but refuted that theory by giving birth — without any contact with another snake, according to officials with the zoo where she lives.
That’s right. The zoo is touting its newest addition as a virgin birth.
“We got one anaconda and have had this anaconda since 2005,” said Tom Bennett, co-director at the zoo.
“Honestly, we never checked,” Bennett added about the snake’s gender. “It was sold to us as a male ... and a male was fine with us, because females tend to get a lot larger. We just had no thought at all that we were going to have babies because we don’t have a pair. This is the only green anaconda we’ve ever had.”
Then, Bennett got the call from one of the zookeepers on Jan. 31, saying there’s a baby anaconda in the cage.
Anacondas are a species of the boa group, meaning they are constrictors. They’re not venomous, though they will bite. And though some snakes lay eggs, anacondas give birth — they actually hatch their eggs inside their bodies.
“Because laying eggs can be a problem because lots of things eat eggs,” Bennett said. “So when a female lays eggs, it reduces the likelihood of those babies hatching, so they give live birth generally.”
As with most forms of reproduction, it generally takes a female and male to produce offspring, but zoo officials think the surprise baby anaconda is the product of parthenogenesis — basically, asexual reproduction. It’s not unheard of; certain species of sharks can reproduce this way, and it’s been documented among other species, as well.
John Jensen, a senior wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said there are a “number of reptiles” that reproduce in this manner. He noted he’s not an anaconda expert, nor is he familiar with the anaconda at the North Georgia Zoo.
“It does happen,” he said about parthenogenesis. “I don’t know that it’s ever happened in anacondas, or if it’s ever been documented with them, but it certainly has happened with other reptiles.”
Various news reports have recorded one other incident of a green anaconda reproducing this way, at West Midland Safari Park in England. But Stephen Divers, a professor of zoological medicine with the University of Georgia, said there’s “very little hard evidence” to support the point.
“The vast majority of snake reproduction is sexual, requiring a male and a female,” Divers said. “I am unaware of any good scientific reports that truly document asexual reproduction in any boa constrictor, be it boa or anaconda or python.”
Both Divers and Bennett said female reptiles can store sperm and produce live young up to two years after having contact with a male. Bennett said if the mother anaconda had only been with the zoo for a couple of years, they would suspect that to be the case. But since she’s been with the zoo for nearly 10 years, how the baby snake came to be remains a mystery.
To confirm what happened with the North Georgia Zoo anaconda is parthenogenesis, Bennett said he is in the process of setting up genetic testing for the baby snake.
“We know what we know now just on circumstantial evidence...” Bennett said. “The only explanations are parthenogenesis, sort of this ‘virgin birth’ idea — or somebody’s playing a big old stupid prank on us, and gave us a great anaconda for free.”
In the meantime, both mama and baby snake are doing well. Bennett invited the public to visit the zoo’s Facebook page at facebook.com/northgeorgiazoo to make name suggestions.
And maybe there’s even a lesson in here for the upcoming Valentine’s Day holiday, particularly for those who are single.
“It’s so outside of the normal what we think of — boy snake meets girl snake, they fall in love and have a baby snake,” Bennett said. “But it’s a survival strategy; if you don’t need a male, then the female can do it on its own.”
What is parthenogenesis?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, parthenogenesis is “reproduction by development of an unfertilized ... gamete.”