The 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 nine different species of snake clitoris – or hemiclitoris as it is known – around the world. Through the use of dissection and 3D X-ray scanning technology, the researchers were able to examine the female snake genitalia and compare it to the hemipenis, the genitalia of male snakes.
Previous research had misidentified hemiclitoris in snakes as hemipenes or scent glands. To clarify the situation, the team reviewed previous research and identified physiological structures found in the snake through histology (by examining cells and structures under a microscope). The two female death adders were key examples that helped to fully illuminate the structure.
The research team, led by University of Adelaide doctoral candidate Megan Folwell, found a heart-shaped organ rich in nerves and clusters of red blood cells.
“This is important because snake mating is often thought to involve forcing the female — not seduction,” said Kate Sanders, a University of Adelaide biologist and co-author of the paper, in a press release.
The team concludes that the snake clitoris is “possibly functional” and that differences between species may be associated with different courtship and mating behaviors in future studies. The team hypothesizes that hemiclitoris may also provide female snakes with sensation during sex and encourage “longer and more frequent mating” — providing a better opportunity for fertilization and resulting in smaller, cuddly snake babies.
But why did it take so long to find the snake clitoris? Considering that this applies to most female amniotes (a group of terrestrial animals that includes reptiles and mammals) other than birds, it is not surprising that female snakes have a snake. But as Jenna Crowe-Riddell, co-author and neuroecologist at La Trobe Un, writes in The Conversation, there are three reasons why we don’t have prior knowledge of the organ.
First, the snake genitalia is mostly hidden inside the tail. Some snake species also have a peculiarity with intersex individuals having both ovaries and hemipenes, which further confuses the description. Folwell and his team recently discussed these challenges in a June review article.
More generally, the female genitalia does not attract the same kind of research interest as the male genitalia. This applies not only to snakes, but also to mammalian species and humans.
Today, the snake clitoris is finally getting its moment.