WHO KNEW?! That’s right: a left penis and a right penis. Just in case anyone else is as thrilled by this fabulous factoid as I am, I thought I’d share.
By the way, anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a big fan of snakes: if I were to rank every kind of animal in the world by my own personal preference snakes would be at the absolute bottom, just under sneaky sharks and dogs that jump on you. However, I have a lot of respect and appreciation for all creatures and think they are all amazing in their own ways (have I mentioned that snakes have two penises?) and want them all to have happy lives. I’d just rather the snakes had their lives a little farther away from me than the ceiling of our garage laundry room, where a harmless garden-variety black snake named Trevor has taken up residence and proceeded to shed 4(!!!!) skins and leave them in the rafters. Not my favorite recent neighborhood development.
Interestingly, only 3% of bird species have penises at all: the rest just rub their cloacas together. Or, as National Geographic puts it, “males and females just mush their genital openings together and he transfers sperm into her in a manoeuvre called the ‘cloacal kiss.’” (It’s like they were sitting around going, “what can we name this manoeuvre that won’t make people throw up in their mouths a little when they read it? Can’t think of anything? Me either. Cloacal kiss it is.”)
Anyway, no, I’m not listening to the podcast How Many Penises Has it Got?, though I might, because apparently the answer isn’t always “one.” The first piece of information came from the episode “Outwitting the Cane Toad with Biology” on the Conversations podcast, which was an absolutely fascinating episode about the cane toad invasion and snake anatomy. The second fact came from Radiolab’s “The Beauty Puzzle,” another fantastic episode that discusses one theory for why so many bird species lost their penises (that’s right, they had them and then lost them again). It also talks about the role of beauty in natural selection—very interesting.
So, snakes have two penises, also known as hemipenes (one is a hemipenis). Sometimes hemipenes are like tiny penises, and sometimes they are spiky and weird like pompoms. I’ve made a drawing of the situation, copied from the web. I didn’t want to just paste a google images picture here because, well, google them if you want to… Also, snakes have two lungs but they are on top of each other rather than side by side, which makes a lot of good sense when you think about the shape of a snake.