Snakes have clitorises, scientists reveal for the first time

"We're filling in that missing spot.”
Nergis Firtina
snake.jpg
A grass snake

DamianKuzdak/iStock 

With more than 10,000 nerve fibers, the clitoris has the most nerve endings in the female body and is the uppermost component of women's orgasms. A new study reveals that some female snakes also have the clitoris as other females do.

Led by La Trobe University, the University of Adelaide, and the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, researchers describe their completion of a first-ever anatomical description of the clitoris (hemiclitores) in female snakes.

The study was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

In comparison to their male counterparts, female genitalia is strikingly understudied, which restricts academic understanding of sexual reproduction in vertebrates like snakes and lizards, said in the press release.

“It opens up new questions about the dynamics of snake mating and initiates new conversations about a whole other side of the story that we've been missing, which is the female anatomy,” Dr. Jenna Crowe-Riddell said, co-author and Postdoctoral Researcher in Neuroecology at La Trobe University.

“When (Megan Folwell, Ph.D. student researcher) asked the question, it occurred to us that scientists have never thought to do this. So that's why we looked into some of the cells that underlie it and found red blood cells and nerves that are consistent with erectile tissue – all the hallmarks of the clitoris.”

Snakes have clitorises, scientists reveal for the first time
Close-up of copperhead snake in the leaves.

"We're filling in that missing spot”

The researchers underline that there has not been much research on females and suggest that this research can be a pioneer.

“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. So we're filling in that missing spot,” added Dr. Crowe-Riddell.

Dr. Crowe-Riddell believes the next step is to look at other snake species and how they mate, which could be through compulsion or seduction.

“Because one thing's for sure is that the hemipenes are incredibly variable, genitalia just evolves super quickly across animals, and snakes are no exception.”

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“Now we've got this anatomy, we can kind of flip the coercion assumption and say, well it could be seduction, and that just hasn't really been considered that much for snakes. It's definitely considered for mammals. I think snakes have been left behind because they're scaly and a bit, bit weird, honestly,” she also explained.

What are they using for?

As ABC reported, Dr. Crowe-Riddell and her team are now eager to learn more about how the snake clitoris differs between species. They've seen hints of this variation before, with a couple of species having little "pockets" at the apex of their clitoris. Knowing that snakes have clitoris is one thing. It's another thing to figure out why it's there and what it does.

"But we don't know if that's what snakes are using it for," said Dr.Crowne-Riddell to ABC. Dr. Crowe-Riddell is eager to examine the nerves that flow to and from the snake clitoris to find out. Mapping where they move, how tightly they're packed, and what messages they send could reveal whether the clitoris is aroused during sex.