So, I really had no intention of doing three separate posts on virgin birth in snakes, and I sincerely hope – for your sake as well as mine – that this finishes off the topic for the time being. In the first installment, we talked about this Boa constrictor that had given parthenogenetic birth to 22 babies, and some of the interesting genetics raised by that observation. In the second installment, we noted some species that undergo paternal genome exclusion, which seems like a similar phenomenon.
I was then pointed toward the case of the whip-tail lizard in a note from John Wilkins, who not only has an AWESOME name, but also runs possibly the best blog out there on philosophy and evolution. If you're not already reading his blog, I highly recommend it.
The phenomenon of non-virgin virgin birth may not be all that rare or unexpected among herps (amphibians and reptiles). For example, in the case of the whip-tail lizards, some species consist only of females, all of whom reproduce parthenogenetically. The interesting thing is that mating is required in order to trigger this parthenogenetic developmental process. So, how does that work, if there are no males? What happens is that these females will mate with males of another species, and it is likely that the diploid, parthenogenetic egg starts developing only when it receives a biochemical signal that depends on physical contact with the sperm.
I spoke about this with Andrew Singson, who studies cell-cell interactions, particularly between gametes. He noted that the requirement for physical stimulation of the egg by sperm is actually quite widespread. In many birds, for example, polyspermy, where more than one sperm interacts with the egg, is required. Only one of these sperm fuses with the egg and contributes genetic material to the offspring. However, that single sperm may not provide enough of a signal to flip the egg's developmental switch. Before the process of embryonic development can start, many other sperm have to physically interact with the egg in a sort of wing-man role. Opportunities for analogy abound, but fortunately – for your sake as well as mine – other demands prohibit me from plumbing their depths at the moment.