Scientists have discovered that female snakes have a clitoris, a previously overlooked or ignored part of their anatomy (and that of many other animals), according to a new study.
“It’s quite a taboo area. Female genitalia is not an easy topic to bring up at times and I think people were happy to say “it doesn’t exist”. The snake doesn’t need to have one,” said lead study author Megan Folwell, a doctoral student at the University of Adelaide in Australia.
Folwell set out to investigate the female genitalia of snakes after noticing that very little research had been done on the subject. He found that the organ varied between types of snakes, occupying most of the anterior region of the tail in some, according to the study published Wednesday in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
“People weren’t looking and it was hard to find. It’s not the easiest structure to see in some (snake) species,” she explained, adding that some researchers had previously confused clitorises in snakes for scent glands.
This work has definitively clarified whether the clitoris exists in snakes and also offers context for what purpose it potentially serves, said Kurt Schwenk, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. Schwenk was not involved in the research.
In conducting the research, Folwell carefully dissected the genitalia of nine different species, including the common death adder, which represented four major snake families, Elapid, Viperid, Pythonidae and Colubridae. She found the sex organ in all the snakes she examined in the study.
Officially known as the hemiclitoris because it has two distinct parts, the organ appeared to be shaped “like two tears forming a love-heart structure” in the death adder, Folwell said. In reptiles such as snakes, the penis is known as the hemipenis because it also has a double structure.
Folwell said more study is needed to reveal exactly why snakes have a clitoris, but according to the study, a group of nerve endings in the hemiclitoris suggest it plays a role in sexual arousal, possibly creating a “female snake-like sensation.” during courtship”. and copulation, which could promote longer and more frequent matings leading to greater fertilization success.
It could also give the female snake information to decide whether she wants to stop copulation to reduce the chances of reproducing with a particular male, Schwenk said.
“It allows the female to make decisions that allow her to control copulation and which male she mates with,” Schwenk said. “Historically there has been a tendency to view females of other species, well, not just other species, as passive recipients of male copulatory behavior or even victims.”
But research like this one shows that female animals probably play a much more active part in mating than is generally believed, he added.
Studies of female genitalia in the animal kingdom are relatively scarce due to an “overwhelming focus on male genitalia,” according to the study.
It’s important not to project human traits onto different species, but it’s impossible to completely separate sociopolitical climate from how scientists conduct their research, Schwenk said. Through both bias and what is easier to observe, most biological research questions have focused on male anatomy and behavior.
Some biologists are trying to correct this imbalance. Last year, Patricia Brennan, associate professor of biological sciences at Mount Holyoke College and co-author of the new snake study, revealed that dolphins also have a functional clitoris.