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The asexual whiptail species Cnemidophorus neomexicanus (center) consists exclusively of females who reproduce via parthenogenesis. C. neomexicanus is flanked by the sexually reproducing species that hybridized to generate it: C. inornatus (left) and C. tigris (right).

Parthenogenesis is a form of asexual reproduction in which offspring develop from unfertilized eggs. A common mode of reproduction in arthropods, such as insects and arachnids, parthenogenesis also occurs in some species of fish, amphibians, and reptiles.

Parthenogenesis is part of the wide diversity of adaptations found in nature, securing the perpetuation of the lineage of organisms. Reproduction not only secures the individual purpose of the species survival, but also provides organisms for food chains. Most animals that engage in parthenogenesis also utilize sexual reproduction or sexual behaviors, reflecting the near universal mode of this form of reproduction among eukaryotes.


Parthenogenesis (which is derived from the Greek words for "virgin" and "creation") is more efficient than sexual reproduction because it does not always involve mating behaviors, which require energy and usually incur risks. Moreover, all members of an asexual population are capable of reproducing. The disadvantage, however, is that asexual reproduction, unlike its sexual counterpart, does not generate genotypic diversity, which is important for adapting to abiotic and biotic environmental changes.

Given the drawbacks of asexual reproduction for the long-term survival of the species, most species that engage in parthenogenesis also participate in sexual reproduction or sexual behaviors. Parthenogenesis, thus, typically serves as one available reproductive strategy, often a response to environmental or seasonal conditions, such as the amount of available resources. Aphids, for example, are parthenogenic in spring and summer, multiplying rapidly while conditions are favorable; during the winter months, they mate, and the females hatch fertilized eggs. In rare cases, however, parthenogenesis does not occur in combination with sexual reproduction or behaviors: The bdelloid rotifer Philodina roseola, for example, reproduces exclusively by parthenogenesis, and the species is believed to have avoided sexual reproduction for 85 million years (Judson 2002).

In addition to its reproductive role, parthenogenesis functions as part of a mechanism for determining sex in some species. In ants and most species of bees and wasps, females develop from unfertilized eggs and are referred to as haploid (possessing one set of chromosomes), while males develop from fertilized eggs and hence are diploid (possessing two sets of chromosomes, one from each parent). Thus, in species also capable of sexual reproduction, parthenogenesis can help to regulate the relative number of males and females in a population.

Sexual behavior

In some species, parthenogenesis requires a sexual act to trigger development of the egg, even though this behavior does not fertilize the egg. In parthenogenic ticks and mites, for example, the eggs develops only after the animals have mated, but the eggs remain unfertilized. Some species of beetles that have no males require sperm to trigger development; these beetles mate with males of closely related species. However, the sperm does not contribute genetic material.

In other parthenogenic species lacking males, females stimulate each other to activate the neuroendocrine mechanisms necessary for egg maturation. This phenomenon has been extensively studied in the New Mexico whiptail (genus Cnemidophorus), of which 15 species reproduce exclusively by parthenogenesis. One female plays the role of the male in closely related species, and mounts the female that is about to lay eggs. This behavior is due to the hormonal cycles of the females, which cause them to behave like males shortly after laying eggs, when levels of progesterone are high, and to take the female role in mating before laying eggs, when estrogen dominates. Lizards that act out the courtship ritual have greater fecundity than those kept in isolation, due to the increase in hormones that accompanies the mounting. So, although the populations lack males, they still require sexual stimuli for maximum reproductive success.

Determining sex

Parthenogenesis involves the inheritance and subsequent duplication of only a single sex chromosome. The unfertilized egg can thus be male or female depending on the chromosomal scheme of the species:

  • If two like chromosomes determine the female sex (such as the XY sex-determination system), the offspring will be female.
  • If two like chromosomes determine the male sex (such as the ZW sex-determination system), the offspring will be male.

In eusocial animals that engage in reproductive specialization, parthenogenesis can be a means of regulating the relative number of females and males in the group. One well-known example is the honeybee: Most females in the colony are sterile workers, but a few become fertile queens. After the queen mates, she possesses a supply of sperm that she controls, enabling her to produce either fertilized or unfertilized eggs. Thus, the queen determines when and how much of the colony’s resources are expended on the production of males (called drones).

Recent examples

  • The Komodo dragon, which normally engages in sexual reproduction, was recently found to be able to reproduce asexually via parthenogenesis (Highfield 2006; Watts 2006). Because the genetics of sex determination in Komodo dragons uses the WZ system (where WZ is female, ZZ is male, and WW is inviable), the offspring of parthenogenesis will be male (ZZ) or inviable (WW), with no females being born. It has been postulated that this strategy might give the Komodo dragon an advantage in the colonization of islands, where a single female could theoretically have male offspring asexually, then switch to sexual reproduction to maintain a higher level of genetic diversity than asexual reproduction alone could produce.
  • In 2001, a bonnethead (a type of small hammerhead shark) was thought to have produced a pup in captivity at a zoo in Nebraska. The tank contained three female hammerheads and no males. DNA testing showed that the pup's DNA matched only one female living in the tank, and that no male DNA was present in the pup. The pup was not a twin or clone of the mother; rather, it contained only half her DNA (a process called automictic parthenogenesis). The type of reproduction exhibited had been seen before in bony fish but never in cartilaginous fish such as sharks (Sample 2007). Another apparent parthenogenic shark birth occurred in 2002, when two white-spotted bamboo sharks were born at the Belle Isle Aquarium in Detroit. The birth baffled experts as the mother shared an aquarium with only one other female shark.

The repercussions of self-fertilization in sharks, which reduces the genetic diversity of the offspring, is a matter of concern for shark experts, taking into consideration conservation management strategies for this species, particularly in areas where there may be a shortage of males due to fishing or environmental pressures. Unlike Komodo dragons, which have a WZ chromosome system and produce male (ZZ) offspring by parthenogenesis, sharks have an XY chromosome system, so they produce only female (XX) offspring by parthenogenesis. As a result, sharks cannot restore a depleted male population through parthenogenesis, so an all-female population must come in contact with an outside male before normal sexual reproduction can resume.

Parthenogenesis differs from cloning

Parthenogenesis is distinct from artificial animal cloning, a process in which the new organism is identical to the cell donor. Parthenogenesis is truly a reproductive process that creates a new individual or individuals from the naturally varied genetic material contained in the eggs of the mother. However, in animals with an XY chromosome system where parthenogenic offspring (called parthenogens) are female, the offspring of a parthenogen all are genetically identical to each other and to the mother, as a parthenogen is homozygous (possessing two identical sets of genes).

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Further reading

  • Dawley, R. M., and J. P. Bogart. 1989. Evolution and Ecology of Unisexual Vertebrates. Albany, New York: New York State Museum. ISBN 1555571794
  • Futuyma, D. J., and M. Slatkin. 1983. Coevolution. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates. ISBN 0878932283
  • Maynard Smith, J. 1978. The Evolution of Sex. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521293022
  • Michod, R. E., and B. R. Levin. 1988. The Evolution of Sex. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates. ISBN 0878934596
  • Schlupp, I. 2005. The evolutionary ecology of gynogenesis. Annu Rev Ecol Evol Syst 36: 399-417.
  • Simon, J., C. Rispe, and P. Sunnucks. 2002. Ecology and evolution of sex in aphids. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 17: 34-39.
  • Stearns, S. C. 1988. The Evolution of Sex and Its Consequences. Experientia Supplementum, Vol. 55. Boston: Birkhauser. ISBN 0817618074
  • Watts, P.C., K. R. Buley, S. Sanderson, W. Boardman, C. Claudio, and R. Gibson. 2006. Parthenogenesis in Komodo dragons. Nature 444: 1021-1022.

External links

All links retrieved November 18, 2022.


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