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While sex without reproduction seems like a better goal, I heard that turkeys can actually reproduce without sex. I know they're stupid/primitive, but can this be true? --Rory Pfotenhauer, Delores, Colorado

You heard right, compadre. Parthenogenesis--reproduction without benefit of sex--occurs spontaneously in a handful of species, most of them fairly simple but some surprisingly complex. The turkey is the foremost example of the latter group, with the virgin birth rate in some breeds approaching 40 percent. Parthenogenesis also occurs in some lizards. The New Mexico whiptail lizard, for example, is a nearly all-female species that reproduces almost exclusively by parthenogenesis, males occurring only rarely. A few years ago a biologist was startled to discover that a snake he'd raised from its second day of life had produced a litter, even though it had never been in the company of a male. Yow! he realized, snakes too can reproduce parthenogenetically. However, while the virgin birth explanation may satisfy a scientist, I still wouldn't try it with dad.

Various explanations have been offered for parthenogenesis. It's said that virgin birth becomes more frequent in turkeys if the female is exposed to semen having a low sperm count--second-rate goods, in other words, which may incline the female to think she'd be better off seeing what she could whip up on her own. An alternative thesis, which admittedly has yet to find favor in the scientific community, is that parthenogenesis occurs chiefly in critters too ugly for sex to be practical. I mean really now, a turkey? With the wattles and all? Or consider the greenhouse slug, which is also suspected of propagating itself parthenogenetically. Your Pollyannas will claim that even slugs are attractive to their own kind and that a young specimen, seeing an eligible slug of the opposite sex, will think, "Boy, get a load of the cloaca on that one." But the more likely reaction is, "No way am I having sex with that."

Strange though it may seem, parthenogenesis is a phenomenon highly prized by animal breeding experts, because like cloning it would obviate the messy unpredictability of sex and instead produce exact replicas of prize specimens. Useful as virgin birth might be in poultry, it would be even more so in mammals, where you could put the production of grade-A heifers and the like on even more of an assembly-line basis than it is already. So far, however, this goal remains but a distant dream, owing to certain peculiarities of the mammalian genome. Fine by me. Think of all the delightful aspects of the reproductive process: menstruation, pregnancy, labor. And the part we're trying to eliminate is sex?

Do they really make chocolate-covered ants? Do people really eat them? Why? --Mike Wright, via the Internet

Some people say it's because they're less filling. Others say it's because they taste great. But yeah, people eat 'em, and not necessarily disguised with chocolate, either. Doug Yanega, head of the entomology branch of the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, says, "I eat them straight. Honeypot ants (Myrmecocystus) are the tastiest, but most have a hint of something citruslike." Insects are a daily staple in many corners of the world, no doubt partly out of necessity. But some think "entomophagy" (bug eating) of selected "microlivestock"--you gotta love the terminology--could be the coming thing in developed countries too. I'm told that certain restaurants in D.C. offer stir-fried mealworms and other tempting bug-based treats. All I know is, if I find a bug in my soup, I'm still sending it back.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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