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‘Life found a way’: The National Zoo welcomes a startling addition

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It was the lizard version of a miracle baby.

Experts at the National Zoo in Northwest Washington said a female Asian water dragon produced an offspring without a mate.

It’s known as “facultative parthenogenesis,” said scientists at the zoo, meaning “she reproduced without contribution from a male.”

A paper on the findings was published June 5 in the PLOS One scientific journal. In a Twitter message, the zoo said, “Life found a way at our Reptile Discovery Center!”

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.