How Our New Discovery of Snake Sex Organs May Change the World

Sam Westreich, PhD

These discoveries aren’t useless; they may rewrite how we see animal mating
Put that tongue to use, baby.Photo byPhoto by Meg Jerrard on UnsplashonUnsplash

Big news for the ophidiophilia community (the lovers of snakes): it looks like snakes are more similar to humans than we previously thought, at least when it comes to love making.

In news last month, researchers announced that they had discovered, for the first time, evidence of the hemiclitores in 9 different species of snakes.

That’s right, y’all. Snakes have clitorises. (Great, more pressure on the male snakes to put up a good show during the mating season.)

Now, your first thought may be “oh, neat.” Your second thought may be “but why does this matter? Who cares if a snake has a clitoris?”

And that’s a reasonable question. This doesn’t immediately offer a cure for a disease, or a way to prevent extinctions, or a solution that is adaptable so that humans can live longer, happier, healthier lives.

But this discovery is big news, in large part due to its wider implications and what it means for how we understand the primary drives behind animal mating in the wild.

Proving that the hemiclitoris serve a purpose

First, let’s talk about what the recent snake study discovered, and what that “hemi” means in relation to the clitoris.

In most reptiles, the tongue isn’t the only thing that’s bifurbicated (split in two). They also have split genitalia, with two “hemipenises” instead of one single penis like most other male animals.

(Why? Researchers aren’t sure, although there are a number of theories; one suggests that the development of multiple penises may be part of a “lock and key” mechanism to avoid mating between different species and leading to infertile hybrid offspring. Another theory suggests that multiple penises, each with its own associated testis, may let a reptile have more mating partners before it runs out of sperm.)

And in female reptiles, the clitoris is split, as well. We’ve known that this hemiclitoris (split clitoris) existed in monitor lizards since before the turn of the millennium, but it hasn’t been well studied.

So, we know that hemiclitores exist in snakes, because we can see them. But how do we know that they actually serve a function? How do we know that snakes actually feel pleasure, and these aren’t just vestigial organs that are left over when that individual turns out to not need a penis?

Two reasons: cell types, and variation.

  1. Cell types. Snake hemiclitores contain erectile tissue and bundles of nerve fibers, indicating that this organ does detect sensation and responds accordingly.
  2. Variation. If the hemiclitores didn’t serve a function, they’d all be about the same size, but different snake species have selected evolutionarily for different sized hemiclitores.

Put it together, and we can state with reasonable certainty that the snake hemiclitores are functional and contribute to their mating.

That’s the discovery. Now, what does it mean for the wider world of animal science?

The wider implications of the snake clitoris

There’s a number of bigger discussions that can and should arise from this new discovery.

First, if you’ve ever been uncertain about how male-dominated the field of science is, this should shine a spotlight on it. (Seriously, no male snake researcher decided to verify that female snakes had sex organ analogues to humans? The authors of this paper on the snake clitoris stated that the evidence was “so shockingly obvious that [one of the authors] almost fell out of her chair.”

Of course, a long-standing neglect of research on the female sex organs isn’t just limited to snakes. Most doctors show an alarming refusal to study the human clitoris, and it’s usually neglected in research or in education. Even gynecologists tend to focus solely on the reproductive aspects of sex, rather than on the pleasurability of the act.

(A 1985 medical textbook described aspects of the female genitals were described as “poorly developed” and a “failure” of male genital formation.)

Ever since Darwin wrote of evolution with “On the Origin of Species”, females have been considered to be the passive and submissive participant in sex. And given that the metabolic cost of having children is higher for the female than for the male, researchers have long suggested that reproduction is something that the female avoids, that a male has to offer a high enough level of reproductive fitness to be worth engaging in sexual activity with.

But there’s an argument to go the other direction, too.

From the paper:

Variation in the snake hemiclitores might prove to be correlated with courtship and mating behaviours and help us understand female choice. We suggest that the hemiclitores transduce sensation to the female snake during courtship and copulation, which might promote longer and more frequent mating leading to increased fertilization success.

There are plenty of cases of sexual assault and rape occurring in the animal kingdom, and many sexual adaptations that seem barbaric to us (for example, the barbs on the penis of the housecat). But as this new evidence suggests, we should perhaps take a few steps back from considering this to be the norm.

It doesn’t make evolutionary sex for every single act of reproduction to be a battle. Pleasurable sensations are a strong behavioral motivator, and there’s no reason to believe that pleasurable sex is something limited only to humans and a few other “advanced” species.

For too long, humans have regarded themselves as more highly evolved than other creatures on this planet. Our intelligence has certainly allowed us to flourish, and to shape our environment to let us spread over most of the globe. We’ve been able to fix many of our biological failings (think: eyeglasses, joint replacement surgery, Viagra) through our innovation.

But at the base biological level, we’re not so different from the rest of the animal kingdom.

What next?

In science, unfortunately, the work is never done. There’s always more research to do, new questions to answer.

For snake researchers, the next steps will be to look more closely at the nerve bundles present in the hemiclitores. When stimulated, what do these nerves do? Are they stimulated during snake reproduction? In other words, can we verify from the nervous system standpoint that this clitoris works the same way in snakes as it does in humans?

Further down the line, this sort of research is useful from both a conservation standpoint, and as an analogue to humans.

From a conservation standpoint, there are currently 97 different endangered snake species. Snakes often hold important ecological niches, helping to keep down populations of prey that could otherwise quickly turn into pests. (Think about a rat snake helping to manage the population of wild rodents.) The more we can understand about encouraging these endangered species to breed, the better.

Additionally, while snakes will probably not be the first choice of animal model when looking at medical interventions affecting the reproductive organs, they do provide a useful demonstration of how reproductive organs have shifted across the evolutionary tree. This could also help us better understand the mating patterns of other related animals, such as other reptiles.

In summary: there’s probably more female pleasure in the reptile class than you think

We’ve known for a while that many reptiles exhibit forked sex organs in both species, but only now, in 2022, has a paper described the appearance and observation of the forked clitoris (hemiclitores) in snakes.

The discovery seems silly at first glance (and yes, it took a female research team to find it), but it sheds light on how snakes are motivated to mate, and suggests that the Victorian-era idea of the pursuing male and passive female is flawed and should be thrown out — for the animal kingdom as well as for humans.

In humans, pleasurable cues motivate mating in both the male and female. Pleasure is a powerful motivator; it’s highly likely that it’s a driver of reproduction in many different animals.

Including female snakes.


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A microbiome scientist working at a tech startup in Silicon Valley, Sam Westreich provides insights into science and technology, exploring the strangest areas of biology, science, and biotechnology.

Mountain View, CA

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