Scientists have finally found the Snake Clitoris

The very first description of the snake clitoris was made by researchers in Australia and the US.

A new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B on Tuesday, describes the size and shape of the snake clitoris — or hemiclitoris, as it’s known — from nine different species around the world. Through dissection and the use of 3D X-ray scanning technology, the researchers were able to study female snake genitals and compare them to the genitals of male snakes, the hemipenis.

Previous research had misidentified the hemiclitoris in snakes as hemipenes or scent glands. To clear things up, the team dug through older research and identified the physiological structures present in the snake via histology (studying cells and structures under a microscope). Two female death adders were key specimens, helping to fully elucidate the structure.

The research team, led by PhD student Megan Folwell of the University of Adelaide, found a heart-shaped organ, rich in nerves and clusters of red blood cells, suggesting it may become swollen and stimulated during mating.

“This is important because snake mating is often thought to involve coercion from the female — not seduction,” Kate Sanders, a biologist at the University of Adelaide and co-author of the paper, said in a press release.

The team concludes that the snake’s clitoris is “probably functional” and that the differences between species in future work could be linked to different courtship and mating behaviors. The team hypothesizes that the hemiclitoris may also give female snakes thrills during sex and promote “longer, more frequent mating” — offering a better chance of fertilization and leading to more tiny, adorable snake babies.

But why did it take so long to find the snake clitoris? It is not surprising that female snakes have one, as this is true of most female amniotes (the group of terrestrial animals that includes reptiles and mammals) except birds. But as Jenna Crowe-Riddell, a co-author and neuroecologist at La Trobe Un writes in The Conversation, the reason we didn’t know about the organ yet is threefold.

First, snake genitals are usually hidden in the tail. There is also the idiosyncrasy of some snake species with intersex individuals having both ovaries and hemipenes, making identification even more confusing. Folwell and team recently discussed these challenges in a June review paper.

More generally, female genitals just don’t get the same kind of research attention that male genitals do. This applies not only to snakes, but also to mammal species and humans.

Today, the snake clitoris finally gets its moment.

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