Snakes have clitorises: scientists overcome ‘a massive taboo around female genitalia’

Researchers say previous studies mistook the organs on female snakes as scent glands or under-developed versions of penises

Female snakes have clitorises, scientists have detailed for the first time in a study of the animal’s sex organs.

The scientists say previous research had mistaken the organs as scent glands or underdeveloped versions of penises, in a study that criticised the comparatively limited research into female sex organs.

In a study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the researchers found that snakes have two individual clitorises – hemiclitores – separated by tissue and hidden by skin on the underside of the tail.

“Female genitalia are conspicuously overlooked in comparison to their male counterparts, limiting our understanding of sexual reproduction across vertebrate lineages,” the study’s authors wrote.

Male snakes and lizards are known to have hemipenes – a pair of penises which are everted outside the body during reproduction. In many species, hemipenes are covered in spines or hooks.

The study’s lead author and a PhD student at the University of Adelaide, Megan Folwell, said “a massive taboo around female genitalia” was a potential factor in why snake clitorises had not been described earlier. “I think it’s a combination of not knowing what to look for and not wanting to,” she said.

hemiclitores of a death adder
A dissection showing the hemiclitores of a death adder. Photograph: La Trobe University

“Trying to find it is not always the easiest thing – some are extremely tiny,” Folwell said. She first dissected the clitorises in a death adder, in which the organ forms a triangle shape “like a heart”.

“I was fortunate that the death adder had a reasonably prominent hemiclitores,” Folwell said.

The study suggests that the sex organs “have functional significance in mating” in snakes. Though more research into snake behaviour is needed, Folwell said the team theorised the hemiclitores “could provide some sort of stimulation signalling for vaginal relaxation and lubrication, which would aid the female in copulation potentially prevent damage from those big hemipene hooks and spines during mating”.

“It could also be signalling to the ovaries to ovulate and to the oviduct to potentially prepare for sperm storage,” she added.

The researchers went on to dissect 10 snakes of nine species, including the carpet python, puff adder and Mexican moccasin.

“Some of the clitorises are quite muscular and large – in say vipers – but then they’re really thin, stretched out and small in some other snakes,” said Dr Jenna Crowe-Riddell, study co-author and postdoctoral researcher in neuroecology at La Trobe University. Sizes ranged from less than a millimetre to seven millimetres.

The study found the hemiclitores are comprised of erectile tissue that likely swell with blood, as well as nerve bundles which “may be indicative of tactile sensitivity, similar to the mammalian clitoris”.

“Now that we know that this is here, we know what it looks like, we know there’s erectile tissue with nerves – we can’t help but think: why wouldn’t this be for pleasure?” Crowe-Riddel said. “I think it’s worth opening up those questions for snakes.”

The study comes after a research abstract presented in the United States earlier this year said that the human clitoris has between 9,850-11,000 nerve fibres – about 20% more than the previously widely cited number of 8,000, which reportedly came from research carried out on cows.

– with AFP


Donna Lu

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Snakes declining at alarming rate, say scientists

Study suspects sharp decline in snake numbers in a variety of habitats in five countries is caused by habitat loss and prey

Juliette Jowit and Ashleigh Searle

09, Jun, 2010 @6:00 AM

Article image
Snakes on a plate: Australian man shocked after massive serpents crash through kitchen ceiling
Snake catcher says two male snakes ‘some of the biggest and fattest’ he had seen, and appeared to be fighting over a female

Mostafa Rachwani

01, Sep, 2020 @3:29 AM

Article image
‘Interspecies innovation arms race’: cockatoos and humans at war over wheelie bin raids
Research shows Sydney residents devising increasingly sophisticated ways to keep highly intelligent but ‘bloody annoying’ birds out of household waste

Donna Lu

12, Sep, 2022 @3:00 PM

Article image
Australia's bees and wasps revealed to be as dangerous as its snakes
More than half of deaths from bites and stings between 2000 and 2013 the result of anaphylactic shock, analysis shows

Elle Hunt

17, Jan, 2017 @12:56 AM

Article image
De-extinction: scientists are planning the multimillion-dollar resurrection of the Tasmanian tiger
University of Melbourne partners with US biotech company to plan genetic restoration of the thylacine

Adam Morton

16, Aug, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
Venomous tropical sea snakes wash up on Australian beaches after storms
Wild weather brings the yellow-bellied sea snakes, which are normally entirely aquatic and highly venomous, on to New South Wales beaches

Elle Hunt

07, Jan, 2016 @5:11 AM

Article image
App allows city-dwellers to turn citizen scientists and track Australia's urban birds
Big City Birds app launched to help researchers better understand sulphur-crested cockatoo, ibis and brush-turkey

Mostafa Rachwani

11, Nov, 2020 @4:30 PM

Article image
Blue-tongue lizards are resistant to red-bellied black snake venom, Australian study finds
Researchers say blue-tongues seem to have evolved a chemical resistance while goannas that feed on venomous snakes have not

Donna Lu

05, Sep, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
Boa constrictor 'at large' in western Sydney after huge snake skin found
Residents warned following discovery of ‘freshly shed’ skin at the Cascades Estate in Silverdale

Naaman Zhou

14, Oct, 2019 @4:02 AM

Article image
Bee sting twice as likely to land Australians in hospital than encounter with venomous wildlife
Study finds five in 100,000 Australians taken to hospital for bee and wasp stings, twice the rate for spiders and snakes

Calla Wahlquist

02, Mar, 2021 @4:30 PM