The very first description of the snake clitoris was made by researchers in Australia and the USA.
A new study published Tuesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B describes the size and shape of the snake’s clitoris – or hemiclitoris as it’s known – in nine different species around the world. Through dissection and the use of 3D X-ray scanning technology, the researchers were able to examine female snake genitalia and compare them to male snake genitalia, the hemipenis.
Previous research had incorrectly identified the hemiclitoris in snakes as either hemipenes or scent glands. To clear things up, the team combed through older research and identified the physiological structures present in the snake through histology (examination of cells and structures under a microscope). Two female death adders were key specimens that helped fully elucidate the structure.
The research team, led by University of Adelaide PhD student Megan Folwell, found a heart-shaped organ rich in nerves and red blood cell buildup, suggesting it swells and could be stimulated during mating.
“This is important because it is often assumed that snake mating involves coercion on the female – not seduction,” said Kate Sanders, a biologist at the University of Adelaide and co-author of the paper, in a press release.
The team concludes that the snake’s clitoris is “probably functional,” and the differences between the species may be correlated to differential courtship and mating behavior in future work. The team posits that the hemiclitoris may also be able to give female snakes sensation during sex and encourage “longer and more frequent matings” – providing a better opportunity for fertilization and resulting in more tiny, adorable baby snakes .
But why did it take so long to find the snake clitoris? It’s not surprising that female snakes have one, considering that this is true of most female amniotes (the group of land animals that includes reptiles and mammals) with the exception of birds. But as Jenna Crowe-Riddell, co-author and neuroecologist at La Trobe Un writes in The Conversation, there are three reasons we didn’t know about the organ.
For one thing, snake genitals are mostly hidden in the tail. There is also the quirk of some snake species with intersex individuals having both ovaries and hemipenes, making identification even more confusing. Folwell and the team discussed these challenges in a recent June review paper.
In general, female genitalia just don’t get the same attention in research as male genitalia. This applies not only to snakes, but also to mammalian species and humans.
Today the snake clitoris finally comes into its own.