A new study finds that female snakes also have clitoris.
The study raises the possibility that Snakes have more complex and varied sex lives Knowing more than ever before, researchers report Dec. 14 Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The clitoris is found in a wide range of vertebrates, from crocodiles to dolphin (serial number: 1/10/22). An exception is birds, which lost their clitoris during evolution. Female snakes also appear to have lost their sex organs, which is puzzling because their lizard relatives possess paired clitoris, known as hemiclitoris. Male lizards and snakes have paired penises or hemi-penises.
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Megan Folwell, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Adelaide, says this element of female snake sexual anatomy has long been understudied in detail, partly because the semiclitoris is fragile and easy to miss, but also because female genitalia have traditionally been considered is “pretty taboo” in Australia.
“Even in humans, the normal function and meaning of the human clitoris was still under discussion in 2006,” she said.
Conflicting descriptions of snake half-clitoris in several scientific papers prompted Folwell to investigate in detail. She first examined a euthanized female common death viper (Antarctic stickleback). “I just started dissecting the tail and went into it with a very open mind about what I might find,” she says.
She was “surprised” to find that the double organs were completely different from the male snake’s half-penis. Also, unlike a lizard’s demi-clitoris, a snake’s demi-clitoris cannot grow outside.
To make sure she didn’t see masses in other tissues, Folwell and her colleagues scrutinized sections of the organ under a microscope. The team also soaked the tail in iodine, which allowed X-rays to be used to see the soft tissues in the genital area at higher resolution.
These analyzes revealed that these tissues are fundamentally different from the hemipenis of male snakes. Female organs are mostly filled with collagen rather than muscle fibers that run throughout the structure. Another analysis revealed that these organs are riddled with “a large number of nerves,” suggesting they may have a strong sense of touch, Folwell said. Like the clitoris of other species, the snake’s clitoris displays a robust blood supply.
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The team expanded their research to eight snake species in four families, revealing a dizzying array of clitoral diversity. For example, says Folwell, the semishading of the Mexican cantil viper (Two-lined white snake) is huge and fills the space of the tail. “Then you have Ingram’s brown snake, which is very small. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s definitely going to be missed,” Folwell said.
Some demiclitoris are thin and sit on top of the scent glands, while others are sandwiched or even a combination of top and middle, she adds.
Snakes are thought to have evolved from lizard ancestors. The findings suggest that, from an evolutionary perspective, the snake’s clitoris “didn’t go away; it just went away.” It’s just changed,” said Diane Kelly, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who was not involved in the study.
Folwell and her colleagues suggest that semi-adrenaline may be stimulated during courtship and mating behaviors, such as tail-twisting. This may make females more receptive, encouraging longer and more frequent mating and increasing the chances of fertilization.
“People often think that in snakes, it’s all about coercion, and it’s all about males driving mating,” Folwell said. “It’s probably closer to lure in some species.”
Going forward, Folwell hopes to further investigate how the hemiclitoris nerve is involved in any touch sensitivity and function during copulation.
Comparing hemi-penis to hemi-phallus in the same species helps understand how snake organs function and may reveal any evolutionary back and forth between males and females, Kelly noted.
“It’s 2022, and this is a whole new anatomical discovery in a very common animal,” Kelly said. “There’s still a lot of anatomy that we don’t know about yet.”