Pregnancy and Birth - How it works

Oviparity, Viviparity, and Ovoviviparity

The birth of live offspring is a reproductive feature shared by mammals, some fishes, and selected invertebrates, such as scorpions, as well as various reptiles and amphibians. Animals who give birth to live offspring are called viviparous, meaning "live birth." In contrast to viviparous animals, other animals—called oviparous, meaning "egg birth"—give birth to eggs that must develop before hatching. Finally, there are ovoviviparous animals, or ones that produce eggs but retain them inside the female body until hatching occurs, so that "live" offspring are born.

Oviparous animals may fertilize their eggs either externally or internally, though all animals that fertilize their eggs externally in nature are oviparous. (See Sexual Reproduction for more about internal and external fertilization.) In cases of internal fertilization, male animals somehow pass their sperm into the female: for example, male salamanders deposit a sperm packet, or spermatophore, onto the bottom of their breeding pond and then induce an egg-bearing (or gravid) female to walk over it. The female picks up the spermatophore and retains it inside her body, where the eggs become fertilized. These fertilized eggs later are laid and develop externally. Oviparous offspring undergoing development before birth obtain all their nourishment from the yolk and the protein-rich albumen, or "white," rather than from direct contact with the mother.

Ovoviviparity is common in a wide range of animals, including certain insects, fish, lizards, and snakes, but it is much less typical than oviparity. Ovoviviparous insects do not supply oxygen or nourishment to their developing eggs; they merely give them a safe brooding chamber for development. Nonetheless, species of ovoviviparous fish, lizards, and snakes appear to provide some nutrition and oxygen to their growing offspring. Because nutrition is provided in these instances, some zoologists consider them examples of true live birth, or viviparity.


Viviparity is the type of birth process that takes place in most mammals and many other species. Viviparous animals give birth to living young that have been nourished in close contact with their mothers' bodies. The offspring of both viviparous and oviparous animals develop from fertilized eggs, but the eggs of viviparous

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animals lack a hard outer covering, or shell. Viviparous young grow in the adult female until they are able to survive on their own outside her body. In many cases, the developing fetuses of viviparous animals are connected to a placenta, a special membranous organ with a rich blood supply that lines the uterus in pregnant mammals. It provides nourishment to the fetus through a supply line called an umbilical cord.

All mammals, except for the platypus and the echidnas, are viviparous; only these two unusual mammals, called montremes, lay eggs. (See Speciation for more about mammal species.) Some snakes, such as the garter snake, are viviparous, as are certain lizards and even a few insects. Ocean perch, some sharks, and a few popular aquarium fish are also viviparous. Even certain plants, such as the mangrove and the tiger lily, are described as viviparous because they produce seeds that germinate, or sprout, before they become detached from the parent plant.

From Zygote to Fetus

The essays on Reproduction and Sexual Reproduction discuss the basics of the reproductive process through the point of fertilization. A fertilized egg is called a zygote, but once it begins to develop in the uterus or womb, it is known as an embryo and later, when it begins to assume the shape typical of its species, a fetus. In the uterus, the unborn offspring receives nutrients and oxygen during the period known as gestation, which extends from fertilization to birth. (In humans the gestation period is nine months.)

The zygote forms in one of the mother's fallopian tubes, the tubes that connect the ovaries with the uterus. It then travels to the uterus, where it becomes affixed to the uterine lining. Along the way, the zygote divides a number of times, such that by the time it reaches the uterus it consists of about 100 cells and is called an embryoblast. The exact day on which the embryoblast implants on the uterine wall varies, but it is usually about the sixth day after fertilization. By the end of the first week, a protective sac, known as the amniotic cavity, begins to form around the embryoblast.


Changes then begin to take place at a rapid rate. As each week passes, the embryo takes on more and more necessary and distinctive features, such as blood vessels in week 3, internal organs in week 5, and finger and thumb buds on the hands in week 7. Unfortunately, miscarriages are not uncommon in the early weeks of pregnancy. The mother's immune system (see Immune System) may react to cells from the embryo that it classifies as "foreign" and begin to attack those cells. The embryo may die and be expelled. The first three months of embryonic development are known as the first trimester, or the first three-month period of growth. At the end of the first trimester, the embryo is about 3 in. (7.5 cm) long and looks like a tiny version of an adult human. Thereafter, the growing organism is no longer an embryo, but a fetus. Fetal development continues through the second and third trimesters until the baby is ready for birth at the end of ninth months.

Preparing for Birth

At the end of the gestation period, the mother's uterus begins to contract rhythmically, a process called labor. This is accompanied by the release of hormones, most notably oxytocin. From the time of fertilization, quantities of the hormone progesterone, which keeps the uterus from contracting, are high; but during the last weeks of gestation, maternal progesterone levels begin to drop, while levels of the female hormone estrogen rise. When progesterone levels drop to very low levels and estrogen levels are highest, the uterus begins to contract.

Meanwhile, as birth approaches, the brain's pituitary gland releases oxytocin, a hormone that stimulates uterine contractions and controls the production of milk in the mammary glands (a process called lactation). Synthetic oxytocin sometimes is given to women to induce labor. Scientists believe that the pressure of the fetus's head against the cervix, the opening of the uterus, ultimately initiates the secretion of oxytocin. As the fetus's head presses against the cervix, the uterus stretches and relays a message along nerves to the pituitary gland, which responds by releasing oxytocin. The more the uterus stretches, the more oxytocin is released.


Rhythmic contractions dilate the cervix, causing the fetus to move down the birth canal and to be expelled together with the placenta, which has supplied the developing fetus with nutrients from the mother during the gestation period. Before delivery, the placenta separates from the wall of the uterus. Since the placenta contains many blood vessels, its separation from the wall of the uterus causes bleeding. This bleeding is normal, assuming that it is not excessive. After the placenta separates from the uterine wall, it moves into the birth canal and is expelled from the vagina. The uterus continues to contract even after the placenta is delivered, and it is thought that these contractions serve to control bleeding.

After the baby is born, the umbilical cord that has attached the fetus to the placenta is clamped. The clamping cuts off the circulation of the cord, which eventually stops pulsing owing to the interruption of its blood supply. The baby now must breathe air through its own lungs, whereas before it has been breathing, fishlike, in the warm, wet environment of the mother's amniotic fluid. The process of labor described here in a very cursory fashion (it is actually much more complicated) can take from less than one hour to 48 hours, but typically the entire birth process takes about 16 hours.

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