Rattlesnake with no mate gives birth at Snake World

Tuesday, August 15, 2017
This female western diamondback rattlesnake at Snake World between Berryville and Eureka Springs recently gave birth despite never having a mate.
Photo by Tavi Ellis/Carroll County News

Snake World got some surprise additions two weeks ago when one of the exhibit’s western diamondback rattlesnakes gave birth to two live babies, after spending more than eight years isolated in her cage.

Dale Ertel, owner of Snake World, said the rattlesnake has never had a mate.

“I’ve had that snake for over eight years in that cage,” he said. “It’s never been with a mate, and then it started having babies while there was a group touring the exhibit.”

The rattlesnake gave birth to multiple babies, Ertel said, but only two of them were alive.

“The rest were ‘slugs,’ where the babies just didn’t develop,” he said. “Two babies lived, and one of them has already shed its skin. Normally, it takes over 10 days before they ever go into a molt, and this one did it immediately. It’s uncommon.”

Though not unheard of, Ertel said that snakes having babies without a mate is uncommon. The process is known as parthenogenesis, a natural form of asexual reproduction in which embryos develop from an unfertilized egg cell.

This is not the first time one of his snakes has produced offspring through parthenogenesis, he said. Several years ago, one of his Florida water moccasins had babies after having no contact with a mate, he said. Only one of the babies was alive, he said, and survived for about three months.

“That moccasin has done it about three times,” Ertel said. “She had actually given birth again a few weeks before this rattlesnake. The babies were about 90 percent developed, but they were all dead. This has only happened in a few collections in the whole country, and it’s happened within 10 days with two different snakes here.”

After posting the news on Facebook, he said he was contacted by Dr. Warren Booth, a professor at the University of Tulsa who has studied parthenogenesis in snakes.

“The professor said he would like to see DNA from one of the babies because this has never happened with rattlesnakes that he knows of,” Ertel said. “He said he sees it in moccasins and other species. He was thinking they should be identical to the mother, but, after looking at the photos I shared, he thinks the patterns look different.”

He said Booth is interested in visiting Snake World to study the rattlesnakes.

“I’ve sent him a message, and now I’m waiting to hear back,” Ertel said. “It would be cool to have my little exhibit featured in a study like this.”

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