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A virgin birth has been confirmed in a reticulated python — a first for the species

A reticulated python, the same species as the virgin mother at the Louisville Zoo. (AFP/Getty Images)
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It's no miracle, but it sure is a rare event: A reticulated python (the world's largest species of snake) gave birth to six babies without the help of a male partner.

The birth actually occurred in 2012. But it was only a few months ago that researchers published DNA evidence that Thelma — an 11-year-old, 200 pound, 20-foot-long female at the Louisville Zoo — was the sole genetic parent. Until then, zoo keepers figured it was much more likely that Thelma's body had held onto sperm from an unknown male for a long time before using it to fertilize her eggs.

"We didn't know what we were seeing. We had attributed it to stored sperm," the zoo's snake curator, Bill McMahan, told National Geographic. "I guess sometimes truth is stranger than fiction."

This is the first case of such a birth recorded in Thelma's species, but it's not the first seen in the animal kingdom — or even in the snake world.

In a phenomenon called parthenogenesis, females who would typically use two-parent sexual reproduction are sometimes able to accomplish the deed on their own.

Researchers say that Thelma's six female offspring were "half-clones," National Geographic reports. That means that her egg cell probably interacted with something called a polar body — a cell made up of genetic material that's left over when the egg cell forms. These polar bodies usually just die, but sometimes they can meet up with egg cells and (if they form the right number of chromosomes once they're put together) an embryo can begin to form.

Thelma's reproductive system may have triggered the rare phenomenon because of her unusually luxurious surroundings: She lived in a large habitat, surrounded by heating pads, and was fed massive quantities of food. With conditions so optimal for reproduction, what should have been a cellular fluke ended with six healthy babies.

Of course, those healthy babies are still pretty inbred — and while they're doing just fine in their zoo enclosure, their keepers don't think they'd have survived in the wild.