The clitoris of the snake has been identified for the first time, busting old myths about the equipment’s suggested role as a vestige of the penis or scent gland. The discovery fills gaps in our knowledge about the female genitalia of reptiles, which researchers say is comparatively poorly studied.
“When you open up an anatomy textbook, and imagine you have a detailed drawing of the male genitalia, for the female genitalia a whole part of it is missing, essentially,” said Dr Jenna Crowe-Riddell, Postdoctoral Researcher in Neuroecology at La Trobe University, in a statement. “So, we're filling in that missing spot.”
A team of scientists went in search of the snake equivalent to a clitoris, technically known as hemiclitores, using bio-imaging and dissection. They looked at nine snake species and could pinpoint structures made up of nerves and erectile tissue – the recipe for a functioning clitoris.
The discovery is a first for snakes and overturns long-held ideas that these lumps of tissue were vestigial structures that served no function (like horse chestnuts). Interestingly, the nine species included in the study show great variation in both size and shape of hemiclitores.
“In some species they have a huge hemiclitores in comparison to their relative body size, what would be larger comparatively to that of the human clitoris to body size,” Megan Folwell, PhD researcher from the University of Adelaide and first author on a paper outlining the discovery, told IFLScience. “However, some hemiclitores are tiny in relation to their body size.”
What’s interesting about the discovery is it could demonstrate that evolution selected for snake clitorises, meaning they serve a beneficial function that could add a complex layer to our understanding of snake sex.
“It shows us the complexity of snake mating systems and how this complexity may be driving hemiclitores evolution,” continued Folwell. “We can now start looking into more what the function of this structure is and what is driving this evolution of the clitoris across species. For example, are there selection pressures driving this evolution?”
As for why it took us so long to track down the snake clitoris, Folwell says it may be that there are political matters underlying gaps in our knowledge.
“I think there is a lack of research in the area, [and] there is a combination of issues around this. Firstly, trying to find the clitoris over the penis which are typically more obvious than the counter female genitalia.
“In snakes in particular, (to no fault to anyone) I think people were happy to settle for the intersex hemipenes as descriptions of the hemiclitores, which is understanding considering the descriptions of lizard hemiclitores, and didn't think to second guess it. I think that female genitalia are also taboo and so there is a reluctance and lack of desire to research this area, and sometimes an underestimation of how important the clitoris is in mating/sex more than just pleasure in a recreational sense.”
The team hopes next to find out more about the tactile sensitivity of the hemiclitores and compare this against mating strategies to see if reptiles are being seduced or coerced into sex. Sssssssssssteamy.
The study was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.