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Female watersnake gives birth without male contact
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This female yellow-bellied watersnake at the Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center gave birth via parthenogenesis -- reproducion without contribution from a male. - photo by Natalie Crofts
CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. Its the stuff of nightmares: a snake that can reproduce asexually.

It may sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, but researchers at the Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center in Missouri believe their resident female yellow-bellied watersnake is giving virgin births. Even though the snake hasnt been in contact with male snakes for eight years, she recently gave birth for the second year in a row, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation.

"At first I thought the snake had regurgitated something until I looked at it closer," naturalist Jordi Brostoski said of discovering the snake had given birth in 2014. "That's when I realized what had happened and then the hatchling snakes surprised me by slithering under the bedding in the cage."

This year, intern Kyle Morton was the one to make the discovery. He said he thought someone put tomatoes in the snakes cage as a joke, only to realize the egg-like structures were instead freshly laid membranes.

"She had acted normal, other than not eating for several weeks," Morton said in a news release. "So it definitely took me by surprise."

The snakes born to the yellow-bellied watersnake this year didn't survive, but the two snakes born in 2014 are currently serving as educational snakes at the nature center, according to MDC.

While other species including snakes like the Burmese python and insects like wasps and bees have been documented giving virgin births, this is the first time the phenomenon has been observed in yellow-bellied watersnakes, according to the MDC. Herpetologist Jeff Briggler said this type of asexual reproduction, which occurs in females without genetic contribution from a male, is known as parthenogenesis.

"For many years, it was believed that such birth in captivity was due to sperm storage," Briggler said in a news release. "However, genetics is proving a different story."

Interestingly, across the species that experience parthenogenesis, the babies that survive are always male. Researchers said that may be why the snakes born to the yellow-bellied watersnake this year didnt live long, while the two male snakes born last year are thriving.