It was the lizard version of a miracle baby.
🦎 Life found a way at our Reptile Discovery Center! Zoo scientists are the first to confirm our female Asian water dragon underwent facultative parthenogenesis—that is, she reproduced without contribution from a male. LEARN MORE: https://t.co/uJUFr5vTKY. #Science #WeSaveSpecies pic.twitter.com/fegZV4EUgX— National Zoo (@NationalZoo) June 5, 2019
It’s quite a tale, how the baby water dragon came to be.
An Asian water dragon is a kind of lizard. Zoo experts said the mama lizard came to the National Zoo in 2006 from the St. Louis zoo when she was 4 months old.
Asian water dragons are native to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and southern China. They have a long tail that is helpful in climbing and balancing themselves. And they use it like a whip to defend against predators, experts said.
At the National Zoo, the plan was not to breed her, but for her to be an “animal ambassador,” zoo experts said in a statement. She would be used to teach visitors about biology and lizard behavior.
Female water dragons, experts said, are known for “laying infertile eggs if they have not bred with a male,” the zoo said, so when she started to produce eggs in 2009, no one thought much of it.
But in 2015, zookeepers wanted to do a study, so they incubated all eggs that were laid by female reptiles that were not bred. After two weeks of incubation, the zookeepers “candled" them, a process in which they hold each one up to a light to see if there are veins.
There were, and experts said it was a “telltale sign that the eggs were fertile and embryos were developing.”
The first two batches did not survive. But the third batch happened to have what scientists call a “breakthrough,” and a female hatchling came out of her shell on Aug. 24, 2016.
Zookeepers took a DNA swab from inside her cheek and sent it to other scientists for analysis. Another dragon hatched from the same mom in November 2018, but it died from a blockage in its gastrointestinal tract.
After a lot of analysis, scientists figured out the egg had developed “without assistance from a male,” said Robert Fleischer, head of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation Genomics.
The baby dragon can be seen at the zoo’s Reptile Discovery Center.