Snakes have two clitorises and they're both important, new study reveals

This female-led study discovered that snake clitorises are important for sex and can be stimulated to cause pleasure, despite years of scientific neglect.

Snake (illustrative) (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Snake (illustrative)
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)

Mankind's quest to find the clitoris has reached a new milestone with the discovery that snakes not only have clitorises, but they actually have two of them, according to a new female-led study.

The findings of this study were published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

This discovery sheds light on the reproductive habits of reptiles, whose sexual organs have long been arousing fascination in scientists. It also adds to the growing body of research on the long academically-neglected clitoris.

Snakes, penises and clitorises: How do snakes reproduce?

Snakes, like humans and most life forms on Earth, reproduce through sex. This means that male-sexed snakes need to copulate with females. 

 Ophiomorus latastii: Latast's snake skin; Data deficient (credit: PROF. SHAI MEIRI) Ophiomorus latastii: Latast's snake skin; Data deficient (credit: PROF. SHAI MEIRI)

When it comes to how this works, scientists have been studying the question for decades. More crucially, they have been studying it for decades almost solely in male snakes. 

Male snakes, like humans, possess penises. This may be strange to consider since snakes themselves are seemingly just long bodies and a head with no appendages whatsoever.

But in reality, snakes do in fact have penises. These appendages are known as hemipenes (the plural form of hemipenis), and are also possessed by other squamates (the largest order of reptiles known as a Squamata) like lizards. 

These are made out of erectile tissue, like the human penis, and are kept in the underside of the lower end of the tail and they come out when it comes time to reproduce. How these look can vary from snake to snake, but this is all meant to assist in copulating with their female snake counterparts.

In fact, snakes actually have two hemipenes.

Likewise, it would stand to reason that female snakes have two reproductive organs of their own, hemiclitores. 

Scientists have long known that hemiclitores exist in snakes. However, their functions were entirely disregarded - in fact, many scientists tended to assume that the clitoris was simply vestigial, serving no purpose. Others suggested that the hemiclitores are just underdeveloped hemipenes or scent glands.

Naturally, this meant that while snake hemipenes were subject to considerable scientific curiosity, the hemiclitores were an afterthought and neglected. 

The fact that this happened is in itself not unusual. In all scientific studies of reproductive systems, including in humans, scientists have long disregarded any studies about the clitoris.

That has changed in recent years, however, and naturally, that could only lead to renewed focus on the clitorises in other animals, including snakes.

That niche was where this current study slithered in.

Led by Megan Folwell of the University of Adelaide in Australia, the team of researchers took 10 adult female snake specimens from nine different species, diving in to solve the mysteries of the clitoris in snakes that had been neglected for so long.

One thing they found right away was that female snakes don't bring their genitalia out as the males do. Instead, they varied in size, some small and thin, others so large they seemed to occupy the entire anterior region of the tail. 

But variation aside, the scientists observed two other notable details. Firstly, the clitorises on snakes are distinctly different to the hemipenes. Secondly, that they boasted a whole network of erectile tissue filled with nerves, fibers and blood cells.

The Australian death adder

One species of snake examined was the Acanthophis antarcticus, the Australian death adder. The males of this species have hemipenes covered in sharp spines. However, the clitoris for females has none of the spines,but all of the blood cells, nerves, fiber and erectile tissue.

This, Folwell wrote, proves that the clitoris in snakes is not just vestigial, or an underdeveloped hemipenis. Rather, they are key organs for the reproductive process.

The proof of this was the presence of both erectile tissue and blood cells. This, the study explains, seems to indicate that the hemiclitores can swell up with blood and grow larger, just as it is in mammals. Likewise, the presence of so many nerves seems to imply that stimulation is important, also just as it is in mammals

Not only that, but the location of the clitoris seems to show that it could be stimulated by the hemipenis during sex. And this stimulation may in turn stimulate ovulation, ensuring reproduction.

In other words, the clitoris is important for sex and reproduction in snakes, just as it is in humans.

However, they might also be able to do more for snakes than they do for humans. 

For example, the study noted that the hemiclitores may have an additional use. Rather than just triggering ovulation, the clitoris may also send a different signal, specifically to store the sperm away in the oviduct.

This is something female reptiles are known to do and it can be stored away for years. 

The study even went further to debunk the prior misunderstanding that the hemiclitores were just underdeveloped scent glands through the research. This showed that the scent glands could be misidentified as hemiclitores based on how a tail is sliced during dissections. This was confirmed by comparing the location of the hemiclitores compared to the scent gland and ducts.

But there are more things to consider from the findings of this study.

For example, why is there such variety in hemiclitores and why did they develop this way?

One answer for that, if you're really that curious in snake clitorises, is that it may have developed alongside courtship and mating practices that evolved alongside the snakes.

Supporting this may be the fact that hemipenes also have great variety throughout snakes and other reptiles.

Science and the clitoris: Hundreds of years of neglect

But this is only rubbing at the surface of the mysteries of the clitoris - and not just in snakes, but for all life forms, as the study of the female clitoris is something that science has neglected for hundreds of years.

The human clitoris wasn't even fully described until the 1990s.

In fact, it is why scientists still make new discoveries about the clitoris to this day.

Back in January 2022, scientist Patricia Brennan of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts led a study that discovered that dolphins also have fully functional clitorises

The organ itself was located right at the entrance of the vagina and has all the sensitivity and accompanying nerves and erectile tissue that one would expect of a clitoris. Its purpose, Brennen wrote, was to provide female dolphins with pleasure.

And there is evidence to support this. For example, aside from sex, female dolphins have been observed to stimulate each other's clitorises, and some even stimulate it themselves as a form of masturbation.

This is interesting because dolphins, like humans and some other animals, do not have sex solely for reproduction, but also for pleasure. 

But what about snakes? Do they also engage in recreational sex?

That isn't clear. Snake reproduction can still be mysterious in many ways - especially considering how some sex can reproduce asexually. 

What is clear, though, is at the very least, snakes still have stimulation during sex, which in turn implies that it must at least be pleasurable for them, even if it is only for reproduction.

So if you were wondering, for some reason, if female snakes actually enjoyed copulation with male snakes, rest assured that it seems they do. At least, unlike with humans, male snakes never neglected the clitoris.