Female salamanders give up sex, end up better able to fend off predators

An ancient line of female salamanders has managed to do away with the need for mating with males, and has developed increased regenerative powers in the process.

They may not be able to heal themselves instantly, but the salamanders show an increased capacity to grow back tails that have been lost to accidents or predators, according to a recent study in the Journal of Zoology.

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On average, their tails grew back 36 per cent faster than a normal salamander’s after being chopped off. That’s a huge competitive advantage as bigger animals look for a snack. The faster you can grow your tail back, the faster you can present it to a predator as an alternative to your head, or other important appendages.

This all-female line of fast healers — part of the broader species of Ambystoma salamanders native to large sections of North America including Canada — is interesting even without its enhanced regeneration. Scientists have discovered that the animals reproduce themselves through cloning, effectively eliminating the need for any messy mating.

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Normally, cloning starts to become a problem after several generations because of the lack of fresh material in the gene pool. But this particular gang of ladies has been around for a very long time. They’ve managed to evolve a unique mechanism to swipe DNA from “sperm packets” deposited by males during the normal reproductive process.

The unisexual amphibians are then able to use the stolen sperm to trigger an egg to divide, but it doesn’t actually fertilize the egg, and may or may not contribute chromosomes to the offspring. In other words, the baby salamanders don’t end up with any of the unwilling sperm donors’ genes.

Scientists have playfully dubbed it “sneaky sex,” but the formal term is kleptogenesis.

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