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10 Mind-Blowing Discoveries This Week

When the next natural disaster strikes, squads of trained cockroaches may come to rescue you.

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Bigger-is-better is something we generally think of as being in the male column of pluses but there is one hypothesis that suggests it’s a girl thing: that the bigger a female is the more eggs she can carry and the more offspring she can let loose on the world while the male’s size doesn’t matter. It’s called the the “BOFFFF ( Big Old Fat Fecund Female Fish ) hypothesis.” Just make sure, when you repeat this (and you will) to get the word “fecund” right. 

8. Virgin births

Underscoring Shaw’s piece on the variety of ways different species accomplish their reproductive goals,  Charles Choi of LiveScience reports that another sexual peculiarity, virgin births (also known as faculative parthenogenesis or asexual reproduction in a normally sexual species), might be more common in the wild than anyone thought. Researchers collected samples from both mothers and offspring of two closely related pit vipers -- 22 litters of Connecticut copperheads and 37 litters of Georgia cottonmouths -- and found that one in each set of litters had no genetic input from a father. 

"We just sat there stunned at the discovery," researcher Warren Booth, a molecular biologist at the University of Tulsa told LiveScience, adding that “Essentially, somewhere between 2.5 and 5 percent of litters produced in these populations may be resulting from parthenogenesis. That's quite remarkable for something that has been considered an evolutionary novelty, even by me up until this finding."

Because it had been observed in captive vertebrates, parthenogenesis was thought to be “a rare curiosity outside the mainstream of vertebrate evolution,” but finding it among wild reptiles changes the picture. Reptiles, Booth says, are the group of vertebrates that seems disposed to either faculiative or obligative -- where no males of the species are known -- parthenogenesis. Komodo dragons, pit vipers, chickens and turkeys have all been known to give birth via parthenogenesis.

Why they’d want to leave the fun part of out reproduction is anyone’s guess and I’m not getting close enough to a cottonmouth to ask. 

9. But wait! There’s more! 

This was a big week for intriguing reproductive strategies to jump out and yell “Surprise!” at scientists, because right behind those reptile virgin births, British scientists discovered that Antarctic mollusks can change sexes when they need to for reproductive purposes in the very cold ocean. 

The BBC’s Ella Davies reports that the mollusks, first described in 1845, have a “hermaphrodite nature” that was unknown until they were recently studied by researchers from the National Oceanography Center, Southampton. Previously scientists had only studied “large eggs and broods,” lead study author Adam Reed said, but looking on a cellular level they discovered small eggs in males, more than they could ever brood in a lifetime.

“The team suggested that the bivalves reproduce as males while they are still in the "small" stages of development, switching to female organs once they are large enough to brood a significant number of eggs,” Davies writes (which feels like it goes back to the BOFFFF hypothesis).

Interestingly, since scientists are only at the Antarctic station for certain months, what the mollusks are up to the rest of the time is anyone’s guess. "Perhaps they may alternate their sex so they can continue to reproduce as males while brooding their young for 18 months?" Reed theorized.

After all that cool information on those myriad reproductive strategies, would anything be surprising? 

10. Turn-ons and turn-offs

Admittedly, it kind of surprises me (again) that any species would leave the fun part out of breeding, but that’s just me. In my house even the computer is always turned on.

 
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