Thursday, November 11, 2010

"Lizard special" to special lizard

Another instance has surfaced of a rare animal coming to light on the dinner plate. This time it's a species of lizard with a rare ability: virgin birth! The scientific name for asexual reproduction, in which a female animal can produce viable embryos without fertilization by a male, is parthenogenesis. Basically, it is a form of self-cloning, so the offspring are female. Parthenogenesis has been observed in insects and invertebrates, and has been artificially induced in fish an amphibians. In 2006, it was documented in a komodo dragon at England's Chester Zoo. In 2007, it was confirmed for the 2nd time in a shark at the Norfolk Canyon Aquarium in Virginia, U.S.A. And it was just announced that parthenogenesis has occurred for the 1st time in a captive-bred boa constrictor in Sneedville, Tennessee.

In the case of the lizard, herpetologist Ngo Van Tri of the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology noticed that the lizards in the tanks at small rural diners looked remarkably similar and all appeared to be female. He contacted a fellow herpetologist at La Sierra University in Riverside, California, who concurred that there appeared to be no males - who have distinct color differences in that genus - in the photos. Dr. Lee Grismer and his son Jesse dropped everything and flew to Hanoi. A restaurant owner had promised to set aside some of the lizards until the Grismers could get there - a 2-day motorcycle ride away. "Unfortunately," says the elder Grismer, "the owner wound up getting drunk, and grilled them all up for his when we got there, there was nothing left." Instead, they obtained a total of 60 specimens of the local delicacy by buying them at other cafes and hiring children to catch them. They identified a previously undocumented species of all-female lizard found only in southern Vietnam, but it took both testing and tasting. DNA sampling was the easy part. To appear polite to the restaurant owners, Dr. Grismer had to eat the local dish, which required holding his breath: "You take a bite out of it and it feels like something very old and dead in your mouth."

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