Just last week, the Cape Eleuthera Institute, in cooperation with the Western Connecticut State University (WCSU) and the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University, hosted a snake dissection and preservation workshop. Under the guidance of Prof. Theodora Pinou, an expert in snake morphology (the study of anatomy and structural features), we dissected and preserved over 40 snakes of multiple species together with their reproductive organs.

So how do snakes reproduce and what do they use?

Just like us, snakes reproduce sexually, meaning that males and females combine their genetic material to produce offspring. Male snakes have what are called hemipenes, which are two muscular tubes used to deliver sperm to a female. On the right, you can see the hemipenes of a Bahamas boa (above) and a Bahamian racer (below). Snake hemipenes come in an incredible diversity of shapes, sizes and exhibit ornamental structures which even vary across different populations of the same species. The function of these diverse structures and how exactly snakes mate is still somewhat a mystery.

With Prof. Pinou’s help and expertise, we were able to, for the first time, preserve whole specimens and hemipenes of different species of snakes on Eleuthera. These could provide a gateway into understanding the different morphological characteristics of snake reproductive organs and give us an idea of how snakes use these elaborate structures in copulation as well as provide information on speciation and biogeographic distribution of Bahamian snakes.

I’ll finish up with some incredible snake sex facts:

Female snakes of many species can store sperm and use it at a later time.
In captive settings, there have been many records of female snakes given birth or laying eggs without any male contact for months!

Males have two penises because…
Well don’t know for sure, but one of the most plausible theories is that males increase their chances to father some offspring. Each hemipenis is connected to a separate testicle and thus functions independently. This means that unlike in humans where men need a refractory period after sex to be able to go again, snakes can use one hemipenis for one female and immediately after the other for another female. This increases the likelihood for a male to pass its genes to the next generation, the ultimate goal.

Male snakes will engage in “gentlesnake” combat for the affection of a female.
The gentleman or rather gentlesnake rule forbids the use of any unnecessary force. For that reason, particularly venomous snakes generally won’t use their fangs in combat which could otherwise lead to serious injury or death. Instead, males will engage in an almost dancelike wrestling match with each male trying to topple the other. Capoeira step aside, the real sheriff in town!