Step right up, as we take you on a journey to discover the weird and wonderful world of the primate clitoris. penises are so last year – it’s time we turned our attention to the female species. That’s the opinion shared by the scientists behind new research that maps the stunning diversity of primate female genitalia for the first time.
“The subsurface 3D shape of the human clitoris has only been fully described in the last 20 years, although we have had equivalent data on the male genitalia for much longer,” said Dr Daniel Varajão de Latorre from Manchester Metropolitan University in a statement. “We now turn our attention to other primates because there is an alarming lack of information about the most basic anatomy of the primate clitoris.”
Male genitalia, it turns out, are very diverse – a new species of monkey was once identified based on the distinctiveness of its balls. Previous research has suggested that this diversity is linked to different mating practices and social structures. While many people suspect that the clitoris may come in many different forms, there is little scientific evidence to support this.
“We don’t know how extensive these tissues are internally, or how they develop in relation to social systems and reproductive strategies,” said Dr Charlotte Brassey, at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Male reproductive organs tend to be larger than their female counterparts – did you know, for example, that a chimp’s penis weighs a third of its brain? In humans, more than 90 percent of the clitoris is hidden from view, but observations indicate that this may not be the case among all our primate relatives.
“For example, in the female spider monkey, the clitoris is long and is associated with chemical communication with the male, and the ring-tailed clitoris is described as “male” because it is extended by the urethra, “Dr. Varajão de Latorre said.
The team turned to some sophisticated photography techniques to get a decent look behind the curtain.
“Many of the tissues we are interested in studying are extremely fragile, and it can be difficult to understand their 3D architecture using manual dissection,” explains Dr. Varajão de Latorre. “MRI [magnetic resonance imaging] is perfect for studying the 3D size and shape of soft tissue structures without destroying their original shape, while for small species, we also use microCT to achieve higher resolution, along with iodine dye to improve the contrast in our scans.”
Look at the clitoris of the tail-tailed lemur.
Photo credit: Dr Varajão de Latorre
With the help of Dr. Magdalena Muchlinski at the Oregon Health and Science University in the United States, the team was able to access museum specimens and quickly began to discover that primate clitorises come in all shapes and sizes, and that many of them are very different from our own.
“In some species, all the muscles are completely absent and, in some cases, we will find double veins when most species have only one structure – we find a lot of morphological diversity every time!” Dr. Varajão de Latorre said.
Model of chimpanzee clitoris, based on MRI scan.
Photo credit: Dr. Charlotte Brassy
Thanks to this study, scientists now have a clearer idea than ever before about the various forms of the “little man in the boat” (no? Both of us). How its expression may relate to primate mating behavior remains to be seen, but it is a great first step.
“The female genitalia has been chronically understudied compared to the male, partly because of societal biases and partly because of methodological challenges,” said Dr. Brassey. After all, it was only a few months ago that scientists found the clitoris of a snake, so it is very clear that it will be discovered throughout the entire animal kingdom.
“Now, using the latest advances in medical imaging, we have the opportunity to correct this bias,” continued Dr. Brassey. “We’re starting from a place of such limited knowledge that with every specimen we study, we discover the diversity of the primate clitoris.”
And what a glorious diversity it is.
The study was presented at the Society for Experimental Biology Centenary 2023 meeting.
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