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First Virgin Births Witnessed in the Wild by Florida Smalltooth Sawfish

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Virgin births do happen, and for the first time, the phenomenon has been documented in the wild.

Endangered smalltooth sawfish recently gave birth in the waters of Florida, without mating with a male.

This is the first time in nature that offspring from a virgin birth has been documented in a species that normally reproduces sexually.

As an endangered species, females smalltooth sawfish are having difficulty finding males with which to mate. Experts believe this triggered the virgin births.

“They may give birth sexually or asexually,” said Andrew Fields, lead author of the discovery report.

How does this happen?

It is thought that an unfertilized egg absorbs a genetically identical “sister cell.” The process is called parthenogenesis. Survival of this offspring is rare because it has only half of the genetic diversity of the mother.

While it may seem like “that’s not something you see every day,” researchers in a Florida estuary found that about three percent of the sawfish they studied came from virgin births.

However, virgin births will not bring the smalltooth sawfish back from the brink of extinction.

“There is no accurate estimated population size, but it seems to be at 1–5 percent of historical levels based on the best evidence available,” said Fields. “The primary threats are entanglement during fishing and habitat loss.”

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First Virgin Births Witnessed in the Wild by Florida Smalltooth Sawfish